The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War

By David Caute | Go to book overview

14
Classical Music Wars

The innocent might have expected classical music to dwell, alongside ‘pure’ mathematics and chess theory, in a zone immune to invasion by ideological polemic. This was far from the case. The political argument between classicism (or realism) and modernism was as lively in music as in literature and art. Furthermore, musical performance standards, requiring no linguistic translation, offered a uniquely exacting trial of cultural strength.

To begin with, harmony prevailed. On 3 July 1945 a jointly sponsored concert of American music was performed in the Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow, before political dignitaries and the US ambassador by the USSR Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Nikolai Anosov.1 When Yehudi Menuhin, the American son of Russian Jews, and by nature a musical ambassador, was on his way to perform in Moscow that year, the young violinist had encountered the lesser hazards of a divided Berlin:

I was shown into the presence of the commandant … From behind her makeshift desk
she surveyed me coolly and asked if I had heard of David Oistrakh. Not only had I
heard of him, but I was looking forward to meeting him that very day. And did I know
how great a musician he was? Yes, indeed, I admired him enormously, I said. But [she
pressed] had I ever won any medals? … Oistrakh, it appeared, had won dozens of
decorations: he was a Hero of the Soviet Union, the darling of the people, the holder
of this, that and the next award, she knew them all by heart.2

Oistrakh, a Jew from Odessa, and Menuhin became firm friends and shared platforms ‘in half the capitals of the developed world’ (but never in Moscow). ‘Commands to perform were a feature of Oistrakh’s life, as of any Soviet artist’s … I don’t think they enjoyed being summoned to the Kremlin and ordered to impress visitors, but it was a way of life which Mozart and Haydn also submitted to …’ Menuhin felt glad to have been brought up an American, ‘free of courtly obligations’.3 Reaching Moscow, he was greeted by a warmth of affection outstripping his fondest hopes. As a gesture of good-will,

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