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  • Writer's picturePeter Donohoe

Archive: The Cold War and the Soviet Threat

I did say I would like to write a little about my impressions of the Cold War's influence on the music world.

It is a subject that greatly interests me, as is its counterpart - the effect of the end of the Cold War on the music world. Consider the uncomfortable fact that the Soviet Union's unsurpassed commitment to culture and education amongst the general population was partially created, and certainly insisted upon, by Joseph Stalin, with the express purpose of demonstrating to the West the superiority of the Soviet system. This was particularly with regard to training in the performing arts, as well as to sports, science and almost all vocational skills.

Morality aside - and most people above a certain age hold strong views about the morality of Stalin - it led to, amongst other things, the creation of hundreds of very similar concert halls and specialist educational centres, large numbers of opera theatres and companies and symphony orchestras. It also led to all manner of internal competitive events culminating, five years after Stalin’s death, in 1958 in the International Tchaikovsky Competition. Most importantly, it led to possibly the highest level of cultural awareness in a country’s general population the world has ever known.

In addition, it created a training ground that was beyond compare, plus performance experiences for generations of Soviet musicians - particularly pianists, violinists, cellists, singers, orchestras and conductors. There was huge brilliance amongst individual players of other instruments as well - e.g. the trumpet - however, I am referring to sheer numbers here. This enormous number of highly trained musicians, who had developed supreme technical abilities, often threw up an artist with great musicianship and performance confidence as well. This training, combined with a natural performing instinct amongst Russian and Slavic people, made the Soviet Union artistically formidable. A very large number of the world's greatest 20th Century musical figures emerged from it. And it was largely borne of patriotism - forced or otherwise (huge and ferocious forms of both existed side by side) - and formed a big part of the country’s propaganda machine.

The Soviet monster threw down a challenge in every vocational field, as well as militarily and politically.

I must not fall into the trap of spouting about areas of which I do not know enough. However, I do know about the musical challenge as I was directly exposed to it, and stimulated by it, from as long ago as I can remember, throughout my early life and up to the time of the Soviet collapse.

My first impression of Russia was when Yuri Gagarin visited my then home town of Manchester in 1961 My primary school was directly on the route from Manchester Airport to the city centre, and there we all were by the side of the road waving homemade Union Jack and Soviet Hammer and Sickle flags as the first man in space was driven past in the middle of a long cortege of black cars – I can see it now in my mind’s eye. I was provoked by the excitement of the event into asking a lot of questions of my father about what the USSR was, and what it stood for. The answer I got from my father was very long, and impossible to take in at the age of eight, but I certainly got the message that it was the biggest country in the world, very important, very nasty, dangerous, complicated, and very good at music, athletics and space exploration. I think the atomic bomb was left out of what he told me, in order not to frighten me at such a young age. However, I was filled in by my grandfather when, a little over a year later, the Cuban Missile crisis developed, and I asked him why he was so frightened when he asked me to ‘Go and get a newspaper and let’s see if we will still be here tomorrow’.

My second significant impression – outside of the one created by news and movies etc. – was when the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra visited Manchester some years later (I was still at Chetham’s, so some time before the end of 1971) playing Prokofiev’s and Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphonies conducted by Arvid Janssons – a staggeringly great concert that became one of the two most important events to stimulate my desire to be a professional musician. [The encore, by the way, was a Haydn String Quartet movement played by the full string section from memory, with the violins and violas standing, played with such precision that it seemed scarcely possible]. I vividly remember observing to someone I was with (a fully mature adult who should have known better) that it was strange how the members of the orchestra never smiled and appeared to take everything so seriously. Instead of receiving a sensible answer about how playing great music that had been written by one’s own countrymen in a foreign land was indeed a very serious business, and that Russian people took culture very seriously, I was informed that ‘Of course, if they play a wrong note they get sent to Siberia’. At the age of 18, perhaps I should have known better than to be confused by such a stupid but quite widely held concept. However, I didn’t, and I remained confused until I actually went to the USSR 11 years later.

My first actual visit to Russia was to enter the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1982, and I was very stimulated by thoughts about politics, the ideological battle, Western impressions of the country and the impact of all these matters on the event in which I was participating. I already had a little experience of Communist countries, having visited Hungary three times in the 1970s and Poland once in 1981, but I had never set foot in the USSR.]

The decades-long musical challenge was very roundly met by the West, particularly by the USA, largely led by a combination of European exiles from both World Wars and then, ironically, by exiles from the Soviet system. For example, the level of playing in the best American orchestras, pitted against that of, say, the Leningrad Philharmonic or the USSR State Symphony Orchestra stimulated a gigantic surge of interest in great music-making, huge numbers of record sales and a real talking point that was often more about politics than about music.

At the same time the best European orchestras – including those of the UK – had always played at an extraordinary high level, and the effect of the ideological challenge was much less, but it was there nonetheless. [Think of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, and the great London orchestras of the 1960s. And does anyone remember Andre Previn’s Music Night on BBC TV, and the phenomenal level of playing of the London Symphony Orchestra at that time?] I realise that it would be specious to argue that any of this was simply a response to the Soviet challenge, but I do think it hovered in the background, along with Post-War self-consciousness.

And the same story applied to instrumentalists and conductors. The wonderful American pianists of the same generation as Richter and Gilels, as well as such Soviet Russian Jewish exiles as Horowitz, were seen by us in the middle as in direct competition idealogically, however mistakenly.

There emerged in the West the names of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Richter, Gilels, Oistrakh, Rostropovich, Mravinsky, Svetlanov, Nureyev and many, many others – all supremely great artists and most apparently grateful to their country and its system (the genuineness or otherwise of this gratitude comprises a very complex subject). These, combined later with that of younger Soviet musicians via the gateway of the International Tchaikovsky Competition and Western touring during the 1960s, comprised in many ways part of a propaganda war. But taken as a whole, it was also hugely impressive and formative for huge numbers of musicians of my generation and beyond.

I believe that one of the lateral effects of Soviet thinking – perhaps subconsciously - on Western Europe was that it helped to stimulate possibly the most enlightened period of education in history - certainly in my country - with an inevitable effect on the music scene. The desire to create a better world after the dreadful Second World War included such landmark events as the formation of the NHS, vast amounts of new housing, new roads, and most significantly the grants system of higher education. It perhaps stemmed from a combination of - apparently slow-to-develop – relief that the war was over, socialist thinking at all levels of society, and the standards set in so many fields by the Soviet Union. It seems to me that all three of these were to some degree connected; the Soviets were Allies in WW2 (in fact, Stalin credited himself with having won it), there was a lot of Marxist thinking amongst members of all classes in the UK during the 1950s and 60s, and the degree to which the greatest Soviet performers and sportsmen was overwhelmingly formative to many young people of my generation.

Strong anti-socialist feeling ran very high indeed at the same time, which during the 1960s and 70s led to some very unpleasant clashes – sometimes within families, sometimes on the media, and sometimes in the streets in the form of student and union demonstrations. I was beginning to be very politically aware when the Paris riots of 1968 and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia of the same year occurred.

It was always the politicians and our picture of the system itself that failed to impress us, with their endless lies, interference in other countries, bullying tactics and the ever-present threat of World War Three. The achievers in Soviet society, as opposed to most of those in power, impressed us all greatly. In the worlds of science and technology (some of it stolen, of course), space travel, chess, ice-skating, sports, athletics, medicine, theatre, ballet, music and last but not least, spying, we were agog with admiration at their commitment and its results, notwithstanding the fact that we thought we knew that they were only doing it because they were forced to by the system and the dreaded KGB.


Since the Soviet system finally ground to a halt in 1991, the KGB changed its name and the Russian threat took on a new guise, all those challenges have been very largely curtailed.

Musically, we now have China to compete with, and we simply don't even try - perhaps because there is no open aggression between us; Chinese musical achievement is not perceived as one-upmanship in the way that of the Russians was. Young Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese, Malaysian and other Asian musicians thirst for the study of Western music and above all to travel to the West to learn from the European older generation, most of the members of which were educated in former times. They are welcomed by Western nations in the spirit of mutual understanding (enhanced by financial advantage and a desire to survive) by our educational institutions - a situation that is the total opposite of what was possible during the previous era.

Our national desire to compete with anyone appears to be a thing of the past. In music colleges, both the financial advantage to the institution and our apparent inability to commit to the sort of basic training that Far Eastern countries go all out for has resulted in student populations being dominated by people from oriental countries with a very high level of technical training. This in numbers as well as in standards. That there do exist - thankfully - several exceptions does not alter the general rule that the UK is represented at the higher end of accomplishment by a very small percentage of pianists in our conservatoires, and the majority are from Asia. Simple provable fact.

Having just returned from South Korea, and having hugely enjoyed seeing firsthand the degree of commitment shown towards the general education of young children by parents, schools, and society in general - much the same as in China and elsewhere - I can absolutely see why at student age they lead the field in so many ways - music and piano-playing being of course the one that I immediately connect with, but it applies quite generally.

I recall a remark made to me by the Head of Keyboard of one of Beijing’s conservatories, when I was working in the city in 2008. It had just been on our media that there were approximately 38,000,000 pianists in China (I don’t know how they count them, and what levels of piano expertise count towards the number.) I mentioned this to the gentleman in question, and his reply was ‘Yes, we are very embarrassed about it being such a small proportion of the population…..’ I worked it out on the basis of the population of China being 1.3 billion that it means about 1in every 34 Chinese people play the piano to some degree, and I have wondered since how that proportion compares with that of the UK. More importantly I wonder how it compares with the UK of the 1960s and 70s, and whether or not there has been as significant a reduction as I suspect.

The startling conclusion seems to be that unless musical, cultural and/or general achievement are not used as weapons in an open ideological conflict, we do not seem to have the desire to rise to the standards of which we are capable. And we are extremely capable; our exceptions prove that. There have been many over the decades that I have been alive, as well as from before - truly great and internationally highly respected British artists. But it seems to me that those people had a great support system from a society that believed in achievement for the sake of achievement, that rose to the challenges of the Cold War and other conflicts, and that did not value being 'cool' above all else. That has, with some great and God-given exceptions, changed, and the greatest change has taken place since 1991.

I think a great deal of blame is attached to such things as reality TV and competitive shows like X Factor, Maestro etc. There is a place for them (although not on my TV screen, there isn’t) - they attract a lot of viewers and they provide exciting popular entertainment. They are just some of the symptoms, not the problem, and they are certainly no more a substitute for real media commitment to artistic standards than Double Your Money would be for University Challenge. [I mention both those TV programs as they were prevalent during my early years. Hughie Green's Double Your Money was a highly successful 1960s popular quiz show that as a small child I used to watch every week on family visits to my grandparents - and I used to like it, along with various American cartoons. However, once we had acquired our first TV in 1963, my father persuaded me at the age of 10 to grow up and to interest myself in University Challenge and BBC documentaries about all manner of things including politics, and I ended up enjoying all kinds of other contrasting levels of TV entertainment. Interestingly, it was Hughie Green who masterminded one of the first competitive TV shows devoted to creating a star – Opportunity Knocks – for which we must be grateful as it provided us with Les Dawson, who has to have been one of the funniest characters of all in my lifetime. However, maybe it was the start of the slippery slope.]

I could rabbit on about this for pages, but I would like to think that I did not lose my small readership by lecturing and banging on. I just thought I would air a few views.

I am not a communist, although the communists certainly had a point; the present financial situation certainly suggests that the unchecked opposite doesn't seem to work awfully well. I am aware that democracy is flawed but that it is the best we’ve got – I think it was Churchill who said that, along with ‘it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’

I do not see musical and other achievements as excuses for the dreadful atrocities the Soviet Union is documented widely as having committed.

And I hope I don't read like a grumpy old man. I do not generally subscribe to the view that the world – musical or otherwise - was a better place thirty years ago - a view my grandparents' generation seemed to hold during the 1960s and 70s, somehow forgetting the Depression and World War Two. Thirty years ago there was a distinct possibility that we could all be obliterated at any time in a nuclear conflict between our world and that from which Richter, Gilels and Oistrakh came.

In many ways the modern world is a miracle. In the early 80s I was privately fairly convinced that we would not survive into this century. Do not misunderstand me. I am a great optimist. It is just that we do so easily either forget or distort the past, and we must not.


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