Cold War in F Minor

This beautiful article by anti-war activist, author, and talk-radio legend William Mandel will make you feel. His musical remembrance of the cool, dangerous tension between the US and the former Soviet Union will also, I hope, make you think about the dangers the world faces today:

I was playing Beethoven’s “Pathetique” on KPFA’s concert grand one day 45 years ago as I waited to go on with my show. Alan Rich, the music director, who has gone on to be chief music critic for major dailies and weeklies, heard me and asked me to do a broadcast concert. I declined because practice to reach the level at which I would be satisfied with my performance would eat into my time for research to combat the Cold War via my program.

Today I go to concerts to relax. Usually I do. Today I didn’t, because the Cold War, that same old Cold War, intervened. The concert was at U.C. Berkeley, in the International House auditorium. Two talented young musicians, Monica Chew, pianist, and Shaw Pong Liu, violinist, performed, very well indeed. One of the pieces was Prokofiev’s Sonata in F minor for violin and piano, for which Ms. Liu wrote the program notes. Ms. Chew, speaking before the performance, echoed those notes, knocking on the piano to illustrate the words: “the repeated three-note motif suggests police knocking at the door.”

Ms. Liu’s notes end with a line from the poet Anna Akhmatova, reading:<blockquote“Where I can freely weep
Over the silence of common graves.”

The oral comments by both performers emphasized that the sonata was written in a period of great turmoil in the Soviet Union. Quite true. As Ms. Liu notes, it was completed a year after the end of World War II, in 1946, but the written notes and spoken words leave the unmistakable impression that both Prokopiev and Akhmatova were referring to Stalin’s mass murders.

There is nothing of which Russians were more proud in 1946 then their victory over Hitler the previous year, at the cost of 20,000,000 Soviet dead soldiers and civilians, fifty for every American lost. There is nothing else of which they are unanimously proud to this day. Akhmatova’s “common graves” referred specifically to the 900,000 bodies of those who died of starvation in the German and Finnish siege of Leningrad in that war, and which lie in endless mounds in that city’s Piskarev Cemetery. I was for twenty years the cover-to-cover translator of a quarterly, Soviet Studies in Literature, and know Akhmatova.

To me who, when Prokofiev wrote that sonata, had just been United Press Expert on Russia from immediately after the Battle of Stalingrad to the end of the war, that three-note motif represented German goose-steps on the invasion of Russia, just as Shostakovich used a similar device to render the same thing. Ms. Liu writes: “The second movement opens with a militaristic, savage dialogue in which violin and piano constantly interrupt each other.” That is precisely where the three-note motif appears.

It happens that Prokofiev had left Russia in 1918, just after the Communists took power, and lived in America and Western Europe until 1935, when he and his wife chose to return to the Soviet Union, with Stalin in power. That is where they lived out their lives, he dying in 1953. His first work after returning to the USSR was an opera, “Semyon Kotko,” set in the German-occupied Ukraine in 1918, and glorifies the Red Army as it marches south.

I am absolutely certain that Chew and Liu do not regard themselves as political propagandists in any sense. It is simply that they have been educated, as have all Americans, to think of the Soviet Union as the country of mass murders, and so when they think about a composer’s motivation in writing particular themes, they reflect that education, speculate accordingly, and transmit that image to their audiences. Inasmuch as the US and Russia remain the only countries capable of destroying the world with their ICBMs should they come into conflict, that is not a helpful mind-set to reinforce in an America that needs to learn that it cannot rule the world.

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