Winning: Van Cliburn, Red Violinists and the Musical Cold War

December 22, 2015, 5:06 PM · BOOK REVIEW:
Kiril Tomoff
Virtuosi Abroad: Soviet Music and Imperial Competition During the Early Cold War, 1945-58
Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press 2015
262 pp.

* * *

In 2013, the American pianist Van Cliburn died at 79. But it was clear to the world and himself that he’d lived in the shadow of a triumph like none before or after since he was 23.

In April 1958, the Soviet Union unveiled its newly-created Tchaikovsky competition. Yankee Doodle went to Moscow to compete in the debut round. What happened there launched Cliburn's career as spectacularly as a rocket known as the R-7 had launched both Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite, and the Soviet-American space race, a little more than a half-year earlier.

Van Cliburn wins the Tchaik
American Pianist Van Cliburn wins the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition

A welcome glance in history’s rear-view mirror, Kiril Tomoff’s new book, Virtuosi Abroad: Soviet Music and Imperial Competition During the Early Cold War, 1945-58 (Cornell University Press 2015), recalls an era that already seems as remote as Shakespeare’s Illyria, when violinists too were deployed as strategic assets. As virtually no one but Tomoff remembers, a squad of long-forgotten Soviet violinists went home from the Tchaikovsky’s debut with six of its eight prizes. But only Cliburn, the American pianist, made history.

Accretions of legend notwithstanding, Cliburn's supremacy at the 1958 competition was unquestioned. A jury of seventeen judges agreed unanimously that he was Number One. The great Sviatoslav Richter favored skipping a second prize altogether, and going straight to the third. A dazzled audience applauded for eight minutes.

Like no musician ever, and no American pianist since, Cliburn came back a Time magazine cover story and a national hero. His LP of the Tchaikovsky b-flat minor, the war horse that carried him to victory, approached Beatles territory with over a million copies sold. Circle Line cruises pointed respectfully at Juilliard as they passed by Manhattan’s upper West Side because Cliburn had studied there.

It was not the first time an artist enjoyed rock star attention. In 1850, according to the New York Herald, 30 to 40 thousand people received Jenny Lind at dockside before she’d sung a note. In 1907, six horses escorted by students in formal dress, followed by five wagonsful of floral tributes and carriages as far as the eye could see, escorted Joseph Joachim to the cemetery.

Like the New York Yankees and Mercury astronauts, Cliburn got a ticker tape parade. But similar was not the same. New Yorkers then and since were not averse to a celebration of New York, New York. But it was no stretch to see the Yankeefest as the celebration of Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and teammates it claimed to be.

Music had something to do with Cliburn’s triumph, of course, just as science – rocket science, at that – had something to do with the astronauts’. But Tomoff leaves no doubt what really mattered.

The Soviet Union was apparently on a roll. A little round man named Nikita S. Khrushchev was basking in its rockets’ red glare. In an unfamiliar moment of national doubt, Americans were grateful for virtually any positive affirmation that that Star Spangled Banner yet waved.

Between 1961 and 1971 American astronauts would return for six more such triumphs. There was even an elegiac finale in 1999 for John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth.

There was no equivalent reprise for music, even in 1978 when two Americans came back from Moscow with gold medals. Like Cliburn, Elmar Oliveira and Nathaniel Rosen, violinist and cellist respectively, were the first and only Americans yet to win in their divisions.

The payoff in more engagements and bigger fees was nothing to sneeze at. But it was 1980, when US Olympians beat the Soviet hockey team, before there would again be civic excitement to match the return of Cliburn, and hockey, like science and music before it, was really a subtext.

To a point, there was less to this than met the eye. Since the Amatis, violins had followed money and power. Since at least the 18th century, state and music had enjoyed a special relationship. The benchmark conservatory in Paris was a spin-off of the French Revolution, the benchmark conservatory in Berlin of Bismarck’s wars of German unification. Royalty was conspicuously present at the inauguration of London’s Royal College of Music. Japan took up western music as it did baseball, as part of a national modernization strategy.

St. Petersburg owed its conservatory to the improbable collaboration of an assimilated Jewish piano virtuoso and a German-born grand duchess, who happened conveniently to be the czar’s sister-in-law. With the czar’s approval, the idea then caught on in Moscow and the imperial provinces.

In World War I and still more World War II, Germans deployed the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic as instruments of what Joseph Nye, the Harvard political scientist, would later call "soft power." Postwar America responded in kind with the Seventh Army Symphony, deployed – where else? - in Germany. Stationed in Stuttgart, it played a regular concert series, toured Western Europe, and made itself available for special occasions, between 1952 and 1962.

As the State Department and USIA too discovered their inner impresarios, American quartets appeared in Beirut and Palermo, and American orchestras in Moscow and Beijing. A classic photo shows Louis Armstrong serenading his wife in the shadow of the Sphinx. In 2008, nearly 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the New York Philharmonic even appeared in North Korea, though a year later an appearance in Cuba was considered a tour too far.

Yet time well-spent in Soviet archives leaves little doubt that it was the Russians for a weird cuvée of ideological and bureaucratic reasons who set the pace. There were admittedly a few speed bumps to overcome. World War I and the 1917 revolution cost Russia the emblematic products of Leopold Auer’s Saint Petersburg Conservatory studio as well as Auer himself, who left the country.

The revolutionary enthusiasms that followed paid off in experiments as different and memorable as Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” and Shostakovich’s inspired orchestration of "Tea for Two." Meanwhile young activists stormed the conservatories as the Bolsheviks had stormed the Winter Palace.

Years would pass before Beethoven, unmasked as a fuddy-duddy and a reactionary, would be rediscovered as one of history’s progressives. But Piotr Solomonovich Stolyarsky never left Odessa, and Abram Ilich Yampolsky never left Moscow. Between them they had Oistrakh, Goldstein, Kogan and Sitkovetsky, all international prize-winners, to show for it.

Soviet violinists David Oistrakh, left, and Leonid Kogan, right.

By the mid-30’s, the party was long over, and the Party firmly in charge. Compared to millions of their compatriots, Soviet composers and violinists lived relatively well, at least by local standards. But they also walked a tight rope with no net.

World War II transformed the scene again. Victory had turned the Soviet Union into a superpower. Superpower meant opportunity, but also unanticipated challenges.

Foreigners often liked and admired what Soviet composers wrote. But certain people in Moscow didn’t. Beginning with Oistrakh, Soviet violinists placed first, third, fourth, fifth and sixth at the legendary Queen Elisabeth competition in 1937. But at least four of them performed while Jewish. At the time, their triumph was worth a car or apartment and a personal reception by Stalin. In 1951, with victory in Brussels a national priority, Stalin acceded to Kogan and Vaiman as the only Soviet candidates certain to win. But it was evidently a tough call.

Tomoff’s study can be read as the anatomy of an interface. It can also be read as four variations on how to win battles while losing a war. The first variation features the composers, though ironically; they seem to have been unaware of it even when Shostakovich was the nominal plaintiff. In 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a cryptologist at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, defected and spilled the beans on Soviet espionage in Canada. A year later, 20th Century Fox released “The Iron Curtain,” a thriller based on the affair, with acknowledged borrowings from Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and Miaskovsky. The producers claimed that they were in the public domain.

Soviet authorities all the way up to the Central Committee and Politburo tried to challenge the film on copyright grounds, but lost. Inadequate personnel was part of the problem. Neither Soviet authorities nor American fellow travelers were strong on copyright law. Without statutory copyright protection, there was no way a U.S. court would rule in their favor.

Things worked rather differently in France, where the rights were transferred to a French publisher, which sued to have the film withdrawn. This time there was a legal basis, the French copyright law of July 19, 1793. Fox was fined two million postwar francs - $5,000 - and the film, which had meanwhile shown in Brussels, Paris and the provinces, was suppressed.

Though the copyright strategy worked, it had its lessons and its consequences. If the Soviet Union meant to play the global game, its representatives would need to brush up on Western law and connect with Western agents and lawyers.

Tomoff’s second variation features performers, in this case young Soviet artists in foreign competition. There was no question that they could hold their own. Of 13 competitions between 1949 and 1957, Soviet pianists won first prize in six, Soviet violinists in seven of them.

But there were a few illuminating test cases. On the centennial anniversary of Chopin’s death, Russians suspected with some reason that the Polish hosts had stacked the jury and the scorecards.

Twin first prizes were considered briefly before the Soviets conceded in the interest of diplomatic amity. But there was no such problem at the Wieniawski violin competition three years later, where Igor Oistrakh, David’s son, was an uncontested first.

Second place went to Julian Sitkovetsky, whose wife, Bella Davidovich, had been edged out of the Chopin. But it was shared with Wanda Wilkomirska, the Polish front-runner. There was never any doubt that a Russian would win, Wilkomirska recalled in an interview decades later. “But I figured, if I came in second to Igor, I must be pretty good,” she added cheerfully.

The Long-Thibaud competition in 1953 was interesting as a test of the West, with 120 competitors from 25 countries, 36 from France, 15 from the United States, and four from the Soviet Union. The Americans were barely in the game. But three of the four Russians finished second in their respective divisions, in part because no first prizes were awarded. The Russians again went home feeling bruised.

The solution was a competition of their own. Tomoff’s third variation is the genesis of the Tchaikovsky competition, that was itself the only survivor of a proposal that had once included 150 concerts over 23 days, 1,250 international participants, 60 performers, some 60 contestants, up to 130 jury members, plus new works by 15 composers. The cost was estimated 20 million rubles, 500,000 of them in hard currency. Unsurprisingly, the Central Committee bureaucracy blinked.

But no one could deny that what remained of it was a success, nor that Cliburn’s victory was bona fide and well-earned. Even Nikolai Mikhailov, the minister of culture, expressed enthusiasm, adding only that the winner’s success must surely have something to do with his teacher Rosina Lhévinne’s pre-revolutionary training at the Moscow Conservatory.

Variation four was the corresponding experience of Soviet artists on tour – or, in the case of Richter, whose mother lived in West Germany, only on tour after some years’ delay. A regular visitor to the capitals of the Soviet bloc, Oistrakh was allowed from 1955 on to extend his range to the U.S.

The triumph began with a stumble when what was left of America’s fellow traveler community met with Soviet officials to view with alarm that Oistrakh was scheduled to appear in New York with London’s Philharmonia orchestra under Herbert von Karajan, in earlier years an ornament of the Nazi era. How did that look? It was solemnly reported that Oistrakh was ill.

But from there, even allowing for such speed bumps as a U.S. fingerprint requirement and the Hungarian revolution of 1956, it was essentially roses. Received everywhere with superlatives, Oistrakh was happy with agent Frederick C. Schang of CAMI, and happier still with the redoubtable and reassuringly haimish manager Sol Hurok. By the end of the decade, America had marveled at the Soviet Union’s best and brightest from the young Mstislav Rostropovich to the Moiseev Ensemble, while Oistrakh, his handlers and the Soviet cultural establishment learned a thing or two about progressive taxation that in those days could reach a marginal rate of 95 percent.

Oistrakh brought home a Strad, the first he’d ever owned, as well as warm memories of friends and delicatessens, and a lot of money. Gross earnings had exceeded $100,000 for a six-week tour, he reported on his return. He’d also managed to engineer a fee war between Columbia Masterworks and Angel Records, and found a tax accountant who figured out how to reduce a $70,000 tax bill to $9,000.

What neither he nor anyone else knew how to do was engineer a Soviet economy that could compete with Microsoft and the Iowa Corn Growers Association, or a quality of life that could match the quality of Soviet pianists and violinists.

Recalled with awe and affection, Oistrakh died at 66 in 1974. Recalled as an idiosyncratic mix of monster and curiosity, the Soviet Union died at 69 in 1991.

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December 24, 2015 at 06:20 AM · Thanks for this excellently composed article about a time period I did not know, though it influences my violin life quite closely. My teacher is Nina Beilina. :-)

December 24, 2015 at 11:55 AM · Excellent, thank you.

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