marxism and music

Persimfans, 1937

We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class.

– Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto

In 1922, spurred by the revolutionary ideologies championed by Marx and Lenin, Moscow musician Lev Tseitlin formed the group Persimfans–short for Pervïy Simfonicheskiy Ansambl’ bez Dirizhyora, meaning “First Conductorless Symphony Ensemble.” (Aren’t you glad they shortened the name?) As you may have guessed, this post-revolutionary ensemble was formed with the ideal of escaping the tyrannic dictatorship of the conductor’s baton. Musical decisions were made by committees, and the orchestra sat in a circle to aid communication and collaboration, with an orchestra member sitting out in the audience to report on issues of balance and projection.

The orchestra’s performances weren’t as disorganized as you might think, however. Many of the musicians were talented, experienced professionals out of the Bolshoi Theater and the Moscow Conservatory, and they were even able to perform and premiere many modern pieces–most notably Prokofiev’s–without much trouble. Prokofiev writes in his Soviet diaries about rehearsing his Third Piano Concerto with them, and observes that the players had a much greater sense of shared responsibility:

The rehearsal is led by Tseitlin. In front of him, on the music stand, is not the first violin part, but the full score, into which from time to time his neighbours also peep. Sometimes the second trombone or the first horn stands up and says, ‘Comrades! Here we must do this, that, or the other…’

Just the same, the rehearsal proceeds smoothly and agreeably….Without a conductor the orchestra took much more trouble and worked harder than it would with one; a conductor would have to battle with passages of technical difficulty and ask for important voices to be brought out. Here the players are very conscientious, play by nature musically and with great concentration; all dynamics and nuances are precisely observed. No question of learning their parts at the rehearsal; they prepare the most difficult passages at home beforehand. On the other hand, problems arise: a ritardando, for example, which with a conductor will come about quite unproblematically, may take them a good twenty minutes to straighten out, because every player slows down in his own way.

This system must have worked well for Persimfans, for Konstantin Dudakov-Kashuro, assistant professor at Moscow State University, notes, “They were so good that critics of Persimfans wrote in the 1920s that there had to be a hidden conductor behind the stage, that one of the performers was the conductor, or that the musicians were so well-trained that they had to play everything by memory.”

1932 Persimfans concert program, featuring Beethoven 5, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Grieg, Wagner, and Mendelssohn.

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