Cornell Glee Club in Russia
This article reflects a panel that was part of a Symposium entitled College Music Abroad, which took place at the December 29, 1961, session of the CMS annual conference, Salem College, Winston-Salem, N.C. The other panelists were Elliot Forbes, Iva Dee Hiatt, and Wilton Mason. Their articles also appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 2.
Last winter [1960-61] seventy-five members of the Cornell University Glee Club made a three-week concert tour which included seventeen performances in Moscow, Leningrad and London. The tour's primary purpose was the presentation of this ensemble's music for those people of the Soviet Union and England who wanted to hear our music. One of the many interesting by-products of the tour was the acquisition by those who took part of firsthand facts and experiences which were not otherwise available; and many of these facts and experiences dealt with music and young people, and provided opportunities to get an insight into today's musical life in the Soviet Union and England.
I relate the following isolated occasions, drawn from the Russian portion of our trip, with the hope of complementing our notions about Russian music and musical training.
On December 26, we gave a joint concert with the Academic Choir of the University of Leningrad, Mr. Sandler, Conductor, in the auditorium of Leningrad State University. We did not combine forces, but rather each chorus performed half of the concert. Their part of the program included Glière's "Hymn to the Great City," Muradel's "Buchenwald Bell," Rachmaninov's "The Day Is Quiet," Dinayevsky's "March of Enthusiasm," Handel's "Largo," an "Et incarnatus est" by Josquin, various folksongs (Italian, Armenian, Polish and Russian) and Glinka's "Glory to the Russian People" from A Life for the Tsar. The Leningrad Choir was a 115-voice mixed chorus made up of students of the University. The soloists exhibited good vocal quality and the chorus sang in a robust, well trained style.
In Moscow we spent considerable time at the Chaikovsky Conservatory. Our host was the Director of the Conservatory, Professor A. Sveshnikov, conductor of the State Academic Russian Choir and the Sveshnikov Boy Choir. We performed for the faculty and students of the Conservatory, and were invited to return the following morning when Professor Sveshnikov had his Boy Choir sing for us. This group is, in my opinion, one of the fine treble-voice choirs of the world, comparable to the better choirs in the English and Viennese traditions. While acknowledging our applause after a group of pieces which included compositions by a conservatory student and by Taneen, former Director of the Conservatory (d. 1920), Prof. Sveshnikov glanced my way and winked, and I was not sure what this gesture meant; but in a moment I knew, for the choir then sang excerpts from Pergolesi's Stabat Mater and Mozart's C Minor Mass—and sang them superbly. The boys of the Choir were students in the Conservatory's music school, which emphasizes musical study while also offering the other academic disciplines for boys from age six to thirteen. Their solfeggio was excellent, and they exhibited good training in harmony and in singing. The special musical education for the neophyte musicians after music school continues in a five-year secondary school, then four years of music college, and then the Conservatory. This means that the formal musical training ideally involves concentrated study from age six to the middle twenties. Other students performed for us, notable among whom was Andrei Korsakov, an eighth-grade student who played a Paganini Violin Concerto with great facility and poise.
We were the guests of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Kondrashin conducting, for a rehearsal of the First Symphony of Nicolayev, a twenty-seven-year-old recent Conservatory graduate; and the following day we were invited to attend another rehearsal of the orchestra at which David Oistrakh was soloist in the Bartók Violin Concerto.
Professor Sveshnikov took us to visit some classes in the Conservatory, one of which may have been the same Opera Class to which Professor Glen Haydon recently referred. The class which I visited happened to be rehearsing Madame Butterfly—in Russian.
Tikhon Khrennikov, chairman of the Soviet Composers Union, met with us and gave a talk on "Contemporary Composition in the Soviet Union." After his lecture he invited questions, and I was very pleased with the perceptiveness of the questions which our students posed. There were a few moments when the room became a little warmer, during such questions as, "How can a composer be in extreme favor for a long period, then, suddenly, become a musical-political outcast?" (Prokofiev was the composer to whom the question referred.) The reply was rather straightforward: "Prokofiev was never unpopular in Russia. He was criticized in 1948, but remember he did win the Stalin and Lenin prizes for composition in the following years." Other questions which were asked evoked certain interesting observations: "Schoenberg is argumentative, maybe some like him. Let God help him. . . . Stravinsky's Les Noces is performed frequently in Russia; but late Stravinsky works (post twelve-tone) are not well loved here. . . . The light-music genre is popular here, and many of our great composers work in this area." Afterwards Mr. Khrennikov played and sang two of his compositions for male chorus, "Song of a Drunk" from Much Ado About Nothing (1935) and "Song of the Pugachov Uprisers" from his movie score for Daughter of a Captain by Pushkin. Then he asked us to sing for him, and we sang a few pieces including Chesnokov's "Salvation belongeth to our God," Russell Woollen's "Ecce vidimus eum" (1953) and Henry Clarke's "No Man Is an Island," after which he exclaimed: "Wonderful sonority! I have not heard such Russian basses for twenty years!"
One morning our hosts in Leningrad invited us to observe the daily routines of various institutions in which our students might have special interest: one group attended an architecture forum, some visited an electronics factory, one group toured a hospital and a group went to a factory in which plucked stringed instruments were made. This was the only factory in the Soviet Union which made harps and was one of three which manufactured guitars. Twenty-five hundred instruments were produced daily, including, in addition to harps and guitars, mandolins, balalaikas of all sizes and the keyboards for all Russian-made pianos. A staff of musicians demonstrated the instruments for us. A harpist played excerpts from Chaikovsky's Nutcracker and Glazunov's Raimond and two facile guitarists performed a medley which included Gershwin's Summertime. One played a conventional Spanish guitar (six strings, tuned mi, la, re, sol, si, mi) and the other a Russian guitar (seven strings, tuned re, sol, si, re, sol, si, re).
In Leningrad I visited the music division of the Leningrad State Public Library, a repository of many documents of interest for scholars of various fields of music. The librarian showed me manuscripts of two of the earliest Russian operas, Fevei (1791), a legend about the csars and courtly life, with music by Pashkevich, and Oleg (1791), a story about the rule of Prince Oleg, one of Russia's first princes, composed by Sarti Cannobio. It is interesting to note that the authoress of the texts of both these operas was Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796. I was also shown a copy of the first Russian music journal, Musical Entertainments, published in 1774.
We were the guests of the Bolshoi Ballet for the Moscow premier of Shuralee, a ballet by the twentieth-century Tartar composer, Yarullin. Mr. Preobrazhenski, director of the Bolshoi troupe, outlined the rigorous selection process and long training period for students of the Bolshoi school.
We spent a morning at the Public Boarding School Number Three in Leningrad. This was not a music school but a general boarding elementary school. We had a chance to hear the school chorus sing; and it sang, I would say, about like most of our elementary school choirs.
Professor Georgi Polyanovski, a member of the Academy of Sciences, wrote an article about our visit, "American Student Chorus" in the journal Sovietskaya Musika. This is the organization which Professor Yuri Keldysch, its President, represented at the New York meeting of the International Musicological Society in 1961.
In addition to our concerts in universities, concert halls, and on the radio and television network, we performed at the Leningrad Culture Palace for the workers of the food industry. Here we were introduced to the focal point for amateur art in the Soviet Union. What in the United States is referred to as adult education, night school, or "continuing education" is centered in Russia in the multifarious life of the club-houses and culture palaces. Young people and adults take part in the musical activities which include folk choirs, classical choirs, folk instrumental ensembles and orchestras and bands of all descriptions. There now exist some fifty amateur symphony orchestras in the Russian Federation alone.
From these bits of information about music in the Soviet Union I do not propose to offer here any conclusions, but rather to voice the hope that Russian composers might attempt to overcome the strangling grip which seems to have stifled somewhat the flame of unfettered creative imagination in recent years, and that the Russian regard for musical performance of the highest order and concern for the thorough musical training of the young people not diminish.