Trotskyism, Pacifism, Stalin, Mao, and Nixon: All Philosophy here?

English: Barbican Arts Centre

English: Barbican Arts Centre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

President Nixon meets with China's Communist P...

President Nixon meets with China’s Communist Party Leader, Mao Tse-Tung, 02/29/1972 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Photo portrait of the composer John Adams

English: Photo portrait of the composer John Adams (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well what a collection of isms, world leaders and philosophical differences… all wrapped up in one wonderful evening of music.

Yes, we went to a concert in the Barbican Centre where we listened to the work of 3 composers who were involved in regimes and philosophies and music that were all represented by these words. Alexander Vedernikov was the conductor

Our first short piece of music was by John Adams, a composer I’m not aware I’ve heard before and his piece was called ‘The Chairman Dances – Foxtrot for Orchestra’. This is described as an ‘out-take from the opera Nixon in China – from the third act where Mme Mao interrupts a state banquet with Nixon on a visit to China.

In Act Three both Nixon and Mao apparently reminisce over their distant pasts and memories of dancing with Mme Mao comes to the mind of Mao.

John Adams is an American composer from Massachusetts and is currently the Creative Chair at the Los Angeles  Philharmonic and his On The Transmigration of Souls won a Pulitzer Prize.

So that covers Mao and Nixon.

Next we come to Trotskyism and Pacifism.

The following composer whose work was featured was Michael Tippett.

Tippett was originally a Trotskyist but turned to pacifism and became a Conscientious Objector during the 2nd World War, and was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs as a result – Scrubs Common being quite nearby us and a wonderful piece of wild it is too. His humanitarian and pacifist beliefs shaped both his life and his music. Tippett accepted his homosexuality from an early age, but apparently felt disturbed by a feeling of exclusion from ‘normal life’, nonetheless he had a number of intense friendships with women as well as men, even thinking about adopting children with one such woman.

While hiking in the North of England in the 1930s, the time of the great depression here in the UK, Tippett was horrified by the sight of under-nourished children. The experience convinced him that “somewhere music could have a direct relation also to the compassion that was so deep in my heart”.  (Tippett, Michael, Moving Into Aquarius p. 152: a series of radio talks, later published as a book) He then tried to combine music-making with political action. For example at a concert in London’s East End he encouraged choir members to bring food for the audience as well as for themselves ( Bowen, p.12). Through his friend David Ayerst, Tippett went to work at experimental farms for the unemployed in Yorkshire. There he mounted a special version of The Beggar’s Opera for local people to perform.

Tippett’s politics reflected his ideals of  personal freedom and dislike of oppressive authority. Thus he preferred Trotsky’s internationalism over Stalin’s rigid centralised state. He joined the Communist Party in 1935, but left after failing to subvert it to Trotskyism.  (Bowen, p.14)

In 1979 Tippett set up The Michael Tippett Musical Foundation,  a charitable trust whose initial income derived from the sale of most of his autograph manuscripts to the British Library

He was a good friend of Britten who had organised the premiere of Tippett’s opera – A Child of Our Time. (Britten’s best known works include Peter Grimes and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.)  Tippett wrote 5 operas in all.

It is the Tippett season at the Barbican this year so expect more from this composer over the months. The ‘home’ orchestra is the BBC Symphony, who are excellent at their job.. I do just have one idea that manages to bother my mind whenever I see orchestras these days and the SO is a prime example. What is the rule for dress codes when playing? It seems that the men are all required to wear black suits (though in this case their styles were different – some suit jackets had no back slit, some had 2 pleats or slits, some had one); black shirts and black ties, and then black shoes – which being men were fairly uniform. However, the women’s dress code was all over the place. Some were skirts, some dresses and some dresses were of the ‘I’m going to a ball’ type – very fancy with low backs and decolletage  some wore trousers of various styles – even satin jeans type; some wore blouses with short sleeves, some had long sleeves, some had short boleros and some had cardis – not very smart ones at that. Some had tidy hair and some not. Shoes varied from sensible flats to very high stilettos and sandals with diamante, and boots with gold heels. So why uniformity to some degree with the men and not the women? Frankly the women often look untidy and distracting – especially the one I saw recently with the evening gown and very low back…

Yet choirs always insist on some uniformity in dress code and none the worse for that.

Perhaps it is because my seat is often very close to the orchestra due to my having the disabled seating that I get to see all this detail and thus get to wonder?

Anyway, back to the music.

The piece

Michael Tippett

Michael Tippett (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

of Tippett that we heard were the Piano Concerto with Steven Osborne at the piano. Excellent piece and very well played indeed.

Now we come to the final and most rousing piece we heard the Shostakovich Symphony No. 8. And of course, Stalinism. This piece was so rousing and so furiously played by the orchestra – especially the violins, that I saw two players who had broken violin strings! They were whipping around as they bowed so fast… it is described as a bitter, intense symphony, written in the depths of wartime Russia – 1943 to be precise. It has according to many critics, a bleak tone with no optimistic ending and thus us is not often produced for concerts.

Shostakovich was a  Russian composer and pianist with a difficult relationship with the  Soviet era government. He was a child prodigy – which often leaves musicians with scars in later life in my experience and his relationship (in and out of favour) with the Government, (and his later inability to look after his health), and was permitted to enter the music Conservatory at age 13, after writing a funeral march the previous year. His most famous work is known as the Leningrad Symphony (No. 7). It was written at the time of the Leningrad Siege by the Germans and some claim it was written to boost the morale of those imprisoned in the siege. Certainly, the first parts were written in Leningrad. Apparently critics are divided as to the value of his work overall and whether it is indeed visionary and powerful or ‘trashy’ as some have said. We left the concert hall with the sounds still with us and reverberating.

We found it intensely moving and yes, very strong and bitter, the emotion being very evident. Do we always need a piece to end with optimism I wonder? Why not some pieces, that due to the context in which they were written would or could have no possible optimism attached to them?

Bowen, Meirion (1983). Michael Tippett. London: Robson Books. ISBN 1-86105-099-2.

Tippett, Michael (1959). Moving into Aquarius. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. ISBN ISBN 0-586-08179-8.


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