During the Cold War, elite musicians in the Soviet Union were able to use their positions in the cultural establishment to gain access to British contemporary music, and to perform it within the Soviet Union. This lecture focuses on the societal position of those musicians, which afforded them a considerable amount of agency. Moreover, this agency enabled them to circumvent the ideological, economic, and legal obstacles inherent in cultural exchange during the Cold War, and to defend these performances from the Soviet Ministry of Culture’s interventions. These musicians included Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Mikhail Chulaki of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, and Dzhemal Dalgat of the Kirov Theater in Leningrad. As orchestral conductors, Dalgat and Rozhdestvensky used their considerable influence to promote the performance of foreign contemporary music, particularly the orchestral compositions of Benjamin Britten, within Leningrad and Moscow respectively. Also, Dalgat and Chulaki lobbied for the inclusion of Britten’s music into their respective theater’s general repertoire to be performed several times throughout the concert season along with the theater’s usual offerings that consisted of Tsarist Russian and Western classics and contemporaneous Soviet works. Up to that point, no living composer from a capitalist country had their works enter into the general repertoire in the Kirov and Bolshoi Theaters. Such Soviet performances of Britten’s music include the Kirov Theater premieres of Peter Grimes in 1965 and The Prince of the Pagodas in 1973, and the Bolshoi Theater premiere of A Midsummer’s Night Dream in 1965. The relationship between the Soviet Ministry of Culture and elite Soviet musicians cannot be described as a monolithic state repressing a powerless community of artists. Instead, their relations appeared to be more of a compromise: the ministry needed elite performers to promote socialism and demonstrate artistic excellence, and this need afforded the musicians some flexibility in shaping their artistic endeavors.
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Thornton Miller is a PhD Candidate in Musicology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is pursuing a doctoral minor in Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies. His dissertation research is on the professional agency of British and Soviet composers, concert agents, performers, and publishers in Anglo-Soviet cultural exchange, and he has recently returned from a 13-month research and language-study trip in England and Russia which was funded by the Fulbright, University of Illinois, and Arizona State University. Mr. Miller has presented his research in Austria, Russia, UK, and the US; contributed to Benjamin Britten Studies: An Inexplicit Art published by Boydell, is serving as an editor on the second volume of the Chronicle of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Life and Works to be published by DSCH in Moscow, and is preparing two articles for publication in the Russian journal Opera Musicologica and the South Korean collection Opera and Aesthetics.
Photo credit Theefer via Wikimedia Commons.