Cold War politics had a great impact on music of the day

Matthew SwannMon 2nd September 2013

The City of London Sinfonia will explore the links between 20th-century politics and music in ‘Hot Tunes, Cold War’

In 1942, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears left the USA, where they had lived since 1939, for wartime Britain. It was a difficult and brave decision for anyone to make, particularly so for Britten and Pears, avowed pacifists and known homosexuals who were already being watched by the FBI in a time of political fear and paranoia. This paranoia manifested itself when the US authorities impounded Britten's part-completed manuscripts of a new clarinet concerto for the American jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman, fearing it contained some kind of secret code. 

This act of official paranoia paints a vivid picture of the reality that many composers faced in the years leading up to the Second World War and the subsequent aggressive stalemate between the Eastern and Western Blocs which resulted in the Cold War. In Russia, Shostakovich was in turn a feted Communist hero of the people or a banned (and often highly sarcastic) critic of the authorities. Yet at the same time both he and the other classical composers City of London Sinfonia explore in ‘Hot Tunes, Cold War’ became fascinated with and inspired by the explosion of jazz culture in the US and Europe in the decades following the 1920s.

Like Britten, Aaron Copland also wrote his clarinet concerto for Benny Goodman, whose easy virtuosity and effortless swing can be heard throughout the piece. Copland already knew the advantages and pitfalls of being a 'political' composer, having played his part in Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s, and continued to write music which benefitted the American war effort in the first half of the 1940s. The clarinet concerto was written from 1947-9, as Truman and Stalin drew up the battle lines that would define the Cold War.

In 1969, with the Cold War in a period of intensification following Brezhnev's iron-fisted suppression of the Prague Spring, and US military action in Vietnam, Shostakovich completed his 14th Symphony. Composed partly as a response to the suppression of the Prague Spring, it explores themes of death in what many regard as Shostakovich's most emotionally raw yet exquisite music. Dedicated to Benjamin Britten, who gave the Western premiere, it speaks volumes for music's ability to transcend political and national boundaries.

Forty years earlier, as a young man of 23, Shostakovich wrote one of his most exuberant works: his score for the silent film The New Babylon. Set in the Paris Commune of 1871, the film is essentially an 'across the barricades' love story, but Shostakovich cannot resist throwing in a few sardonic, jazz-tinged musical comments which some have interpreted as a thumbed nose at the authorities. Only a few years after he wrote the score, jazz became a political victim of Stalin's cultural clampdown, banned as 'degenerate' music (although not before Shostakovich wrote his two jazz suites).

Jazz and politics were inseparable for Kurt Weill, particularly in his Threepenny Opera, one of his most popular and enduring works. Written a year before Shostakovich wrote his score to The New Babylon, it was one of the works that led to him fleeing Nazi Germany for the USA in 1933. Another émigré composer, Stravinsky was similarly inspired by jazz when he wrote his Ebony Concerto for the other great American jazz clarinettist of the 1940s, Woody Herman.

The two composers where jazz and classical music were most intertwined were Gershwin and Bernstein. Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue and Riffs are perhaps the ultimate examples of classical structure combined with jazz flair. Gwilym Simcock, who joins CLS to perform these two pieces, also embodies this combination, his classical training leading to a hugely successful career as the leading jazz pianist of his generation.

Returning to Benjamin Britten, who in 1943 was suffering from measles, and wrote the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings having only recently been given unconditional reprieve from any form of military service. The dark clouds of the Second World War (and portents for the Cold War perhaps) are clear in the words Britten sets, with their themes of life's journey into death. The parallels with Shostakovich's 14th Symphony are also evident: Britten's Serenade is just as inextricably linked with the politics of the time, but contains within it some of his most emotionally raw and exquisite music.

The City of London Sinfonia present ‘Hot Tunes, Cold War’ in Autumn 2013. Beginning on September 27 at Queen Elizabeth Hall, followed by CLoSer at Village Underground on October 23 and ending at Cadogan Hall on October 31. For full details visit cityoflondonsinfonia.co.uk.

Matthew Swann's picture

Matthew Swann

Matthew Swann is Chief Executive of the City of London Sinfonia.

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