International Harmony Via Cultural Exchange: It’s Major In Minor Steps

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Van Cliburn and his parents met with President Eisenhower in May 1958 after the pianist’s triumph in Moscow. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

PERSPECTIVE — “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” wrote 17th-century playwright William Congreve. It’s a charming notion that grew into a public policy in the 1950s, when America and the Soviet Union, in the hope of diffusing growing Cold War anxieties, began exchanging performing artists. Under the rubric “soft power,” both nations sought political benefits by means of friendly rivalries in music, sports, and other cultural endeavors.

Now, when the world is perhaps more dangerous than ever, the idea is being revived. Recently, American Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the launching of a resurrected “Global Music Diplomacy Initiative,” building on the earlier programs. At the press conference, Blinken demonstrated his own prowess on electric guitar and then asserted that “music at its core is about a bond rooted in our shared humanity.”

As before, the goals seem lofty. When President Dwight Eisenhower signed the International Exchange and Trade Fair Participation Act of 1956, it was with the hope that “little by little, mistrust based on falsehoods will give way to international understanding based on truth.” From 1954-59, about 140 groups of American artists and athletes traveled to more than 90 countries to foster peace and understanding. The concept had notable successes, increasing its range of offerings over time, even adding hip-hop artists to the mix in later years. Of course, there were some stumbling blocks and failures along the way. The idea now seems a quaint memory of a time long gone rather than a strategy for the future. So, it is reasonable to ask, what are the lessons to be learned from the history of that initial effort?

Mutual admiration: Cliburn with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (Photo courtesy of the Van Cliburn Foundation)

The seeds of the endeavor were planted at the Potsdam Conference at the end of World War II, when President Truman invited pianist Eugene List and violinist Stuart Canin to play for the participants (Truman himself performed Paderewski’s famous Minuet in G, which he had studied with the composer). In response, Stalin brought in pianists Emil Gilels and Vladimir Sofronitsky and violinist Galina Barinova to show off his country’s musical riches. It was just the start. Before long, the Soviets were sponsoring cultural conferences in East Berlin, Poland, Paris, and New York.

America countered with programs like “Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century,” an avant-garde festival in Paris featuring a highly rarified repertoire, which The New Yorker’s Janet Flanner called “a fiasco.” On more solid ground, the United States and the Soviet Union both began touring their best-known classical artists (“They send us their Jews from Odessa,” quipped Isaac Stern, “and we send them our Jews from Odessa”). Beginning in 1956, leading American jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington were sent around the world as “Jazz Ambassadors.”

In truth, American popular culture barely needed a propaganda push at the time. In Russian theaters, American films — especially detective stories and zany comedies — were more popular than Soviet productions. Even Stalin had a favorite Hollywood project — The Great Waltz, about Johann Strauss II — because he had a soft spot for its star, the plump Miliza Korjus. Tarzan flicks starring Johnny Weissmuller were shown in the Moscow University dorms, where Mikhail Gorbachev‘s fellow students filled the halls with ape-like howling at night. In the streets, boys would often approach girls with the whispered line, “Hey, Jane!”

American fashions were venerated. Even dreaded rock ‘n’ roll became all the rage. At the 1957 World Festival of Youth in Gorky Park, more than 100,000 students listened to Western recordings and greeted each other with phrases like, “See you later, alligator,” a line from a Bill Haley song. Though jazz was officially scorned by the Kremlin, disc jockey Willis Conover attracted a huge Russian following for his Voice of America broadcasts of the genre (overriding Soviet attempts to jam the signal).

The attractiveness of American culture for Russian audiences reached a zenith with the 1958 victory of Van Cliburn at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. Awarding him the prize was a controversial decision, spurring vigorous debate among members of the Communist hierarchy. After all, the Tchaikovsky Competition had been created to demonstrate that Soviet training was the best in the world. Any outcome casting doubt on that conclusion was almost unthinkable. Yet jury member Emil Gilels, who was enamored of Cliburn’s playing and concerned about the perceived legitimacy of the contest — since competitions in the Soviet Bloc were notoriously corrupt — urged Nikita Khrushchev to allow the American to win.

Cliburn played amid flowers during the 1958 Moscow competition. (Photo courtesy of the Van Cliburn Foundation)

Legitimacy was indeed a serious issue. At the 1945 All-Union Piano Competition, Richter — perhaps the greatest Soviet pianist of all — wasn’t allowed to win because of his German heritage. At the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1955, voting was based on “national political, rather than strictly musical technical lines,” stated a U.S. State Department memo. Because of that dynamic, jury member Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli refused to sign the official document. National competitions continued to be an important measure of success for Russian artists. Vladimir Ashkenazy had brought home prizes from Warsaw in 1955 and Brussels in 1956. Lev Vlassenko, who became the great Soviet hope in the Tchaikovsky Competition, had won the Liszt Competition in Budapest in 1956.

Yet for Khrushchev, Cliburn’s win turned out to be a public-relations triumph. Some in the Soviet camp tried to soften the blow to their nation’s pride by pointing out that the winner had studied with Rosina Lhévinne, a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory. But the fact was that Cliburn’s playing bore none of the hallmarks of the Russian tradition. Nor was it particularly Romantic in the traditional sense. In fact, Lhévinne had emphasized stylistic moderation as a key to success. “My mother and she were both interested in good taste,” Cliburn stated.

Indeed, American critic B.H. Haggin chastised his colleague Winthrop Sargeant for asserting that Cliburn’s “tasteful and assured sense of rubato” — the technique of contracting and stretching time — was “in the style of the distinguished virtuosos of the past.” Nonsense, wrote Haggin. “What distinguished Cliburn from those virtuosos is precisely his tasteful use of the rubato which they used tastelessly.” But ask any Russian what made Cliburn’s playing stand out, and the result would be a singular response (as there was when I put the question to revered Moscow piano teacher Vera Gornostaeva): a hand placed palm down over the heart. The matter was simple: Cliburn’s playing touched listeners.

Jury member Emil Gilels, who was enamored of Cliburn’s playing and concerned about the perceived legitimacy of the contest — since Soviet competitions were notoriously corrupt — urged Nikita Khrushchev to allow the American to win.

Cliburn’s win opened a floodgate of cultural exchanges. None measured up to the hope that Eisenhower had expressed more than the one in New York staged by the Moiseyev Dance Company, performing under the sponsorship of impresario Sol Hurok. Born Solomon Izrailevitch Gurkov in Russia, Hurok had managed such great performing artists as Marian Anderson, Margot Fonteyn, and Arthur Rubinstein. He sent Jan Peerce and Isaac Stern to Russia in 1956, paying expenses out of his own pocket.

With the dawn of the new diplomatic thaw, Hurok arranged for the Moiseyev to tour America. When the company performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, the American orchestra was led by a Russian conductor, and both the “Star-Spangled Banner” and the Russian national anthem were played. The audience stood for both. In an eruption of good feeling, there were seven curtain calls. “Perhaps the world’s best hope today,” wrote the Washington Post, “is to be found in the understanding which art affords between peoples whose official spokesmen seem incapable of communication.”

Though the doors to exchange between the two nations were now officially open, successful cultural diplomacy often required help. Jenny Thompson, daughter of the U.S. ambassador to the USSR, explained, “[The Russians] could send the Bolshoi to New York, and the government would pay. But if you wanted to send the New York City Ballet to Moscow, [someone] had to raise the money. [The Russians] didn’t understand. That’s where Hurok came in.” There were other sensitivities to consider as well. The Russians had sampled Porgy and Bess, for example, but U.S. officials rejected the idea of offering West Side Story because it focused on gangs; and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was out simply because of its religious affiliation. Jazz was another delicate matter, since it was frowned upon by the Soviet government. And most of the college exchange students who arrived here to study turned out to be spies.

Bridging diplomatic differences with China was an even more difficult challenge. Chinese pianist Liu Shikun had shared second place at the Tchaikovsky Competition with Lev Vlassenko, but as the Russians and Chinese slowly drifted apart cultural diplomacy became a non-starter. “When I returned to China after the Tchaikovsky Competition,” reports Liu, “the culture had changed. Common labor was valued above art, and I had to engage in physical work for two months to serve as an example. Meanwhile, Mao Zedong was promoting the idea that music and art must be based on folk traditions, and if I wanted to compose, I had to follow those principles.

“I thought this wasn’t a bad idea. So, in 1959 I wrote a piano concerto — it was called ‘Youth Concerto,’ because I was still a teenager — and for the first time China had a piece that utilized both Western and Chinese instruments.” He became a professor at the Beijing Conservatory and performed for both Mao and Chou En Lai, who criticized his playing as not suited to Chinese audiences. The climate continued to worsen. By the time the Cultural Revolution was underway in 1966, Liu found himself under arrest and placed in a variety of prisons.

He cleaned toilets. Guards repeatedly struck his right arm with a military belt, fracturing the bone. In the notorious Qincheng Prison, he was tortured. “In summer and winter, I had only one shirt. There were no showers. For food they gave me some moldy bread and rotten leaves with insects, loaded with lots of salt. I had to spend hours bowing to a portrait of Mao.”

Cliburn had studied with Rosina Lhévinne, a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory. (Photo courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Archives)

When he finally gained release in 1973 — by surreptitiously cutting letters from a newspaper and pasting them together with the mold from his bread to form a note to Chairman Mao about his innocence (which was smuggled out by his wife) — Liu spent months in the hospital before resuming his career as a pianist, now performing such officially sanctioned works as the Yellow River concerto (which he learned by listening to the piece over loudspeakers while in his jail cell).

With the advent of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the gulf between Chinese and American points of view seemed irreconcilable. It had been a difficult bridge to cross all along. In 1852, Hector Berlioz found Chinese music to consist of “nasal, guttural, moaning, hideous tones.” When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited in 1972, he described Peking Opera as “an art form of truly stupefying boredom in which villains were the incarnation of evil and wore black, good guys wore red, and as far as I could make out the girl fell in love with a tractor.”

American ambassador Nicholas Platt helped open the door for a visit to Beijing in 1973 by conductor Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The visit was fraught. Platt mediated between the Chinese authorities and Ormandy, who wanted to perform Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Jiang Quing, Mao’s wife, opposed the selection: That particular symphony, she claimed, was about fate, and Communists don’t believe in fate. She wanted to hear Beethoven’s Sixth, the Pastoral Symphony, instead.

Ormandy was aghast. “I hate Beethoven’s Sixth,” he announced. Platt told Ormandy that Beethoven’s pastoral themes represented peasant life, that the Chinese identified the storm in the fourth movement with the struggle the Chinese people had been through, and that the peaceful, triumphant ending called to mind China under Mao’s rule. Besides, he said, the request had come from Madame Mao herself. “Of course, I made it all up,” Platt now reveals. Ormandy, however, was convinced to go along.

All that has now changed, and today huge numbers of Chinese students are studying Western music and launching international careers. But the lessons of those early attempts are worth considering:

Using art to further blatant political ends doesn’t work. People recognize and reject hidden agendas. Cultural exchanges offered in the spirit of good-natured sharing are clearly worthwhile, but only if the material is easily accessible. And only if the mission includes a commitment toward openness, a striving to accept unfamiliar aspects of the foreign culture. Expectations need to be tempered. Minor victories are the name of the game.