In connection with the death of noted pianist, Van Cliburn, James Wilson in the State Department’s Historical Division came up with the following 1960 Embassy Moscow dispatch drafted by our colleague Hans Tuch that may be of interest to our readers.
Remembering Van Cliburn: Despatch From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State
Moscow, July 18, 1960.
SUBJECT: American Culture in the Soviet Union
During a period when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were seriously strained on the political level, American culture, as represented by performing artists from the United States, quite paradoxically was spread throughout a large part of the country and enjoyed a phenomenal critical and public success. There was a plethora of outstanding American talent performing in Moscow and some of the outlying provincial centers: My Fair Lady had 21 performances in Moscow (April 18 to May 5), 19 performances in Leningrad (May 10 to 24) and 16 performances in Kiev (May 30 to June 12). Isaac Stern gave recitals and orchestral concerts in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Odessa, Vilnius, Riga, Minsk and Tashkent between April 22 and May 27, climaxing his tour with marathon performances in Moscow on May 26 and 27 when he played nine violin concertos in three concerts, all to critical and popular applause. Roberta Peters, in the words of one critic, “sang her heart out” in Moscow, Baku, Tbilisi, Erevan and Leningrad and “conquered the hearts of her listeners”. And Van Cliburn is presently causing near riots of popularity wherever he shows his face and, almost as an afterthought, is playing very well indeed.
The highlights of the appearances of these artists and My Fair Lady have already been reported in the communications under reference. But these could not convey an impression of the sum impact which the American artists made on the Soviet public. This impact was multiplied quantitatively by radio and TV broadcasts of the recitals and performances in several of the above mentioned cities. The programs and vital statistics of each artist’s tour are given in Attachment I and critical notices from Soviet papers (both vernacular and Russian) are appended in Attachment II.
It is one of the strange contradictions of Soviet society that at the same time when Premier Khrushchev wrecks a Summit Meeting, when he heaps invective on the President of the United States and the American Government, and when the press is full of anti-American propaganda, the Soviet public can react so enthusiastically and genuinely to these artists. Not once did the American artists feel that the political pressures and tensions of the period affected their popular reception, their treatment by Soviet authorities or the general success of their tour. On the contrary, they thought—and the Embassy shares this belief, that to some extent the political situation may have had the opposite effect from the one that could have been expected: namely a feeling that “in spite of everything, let us continue to be friends and let us show you that we mean it.”
The public adulation of Van Cliburn, about which much has already been written, can at least in part be attributed to a kind of mass hysteria which expresses itself in the United States usually by the excesses of bobby-soxers in relation to the current pop-singer favorite or by middle-aged ladies running after someone like Liberace. Only in this case, the adulation comes from females between the ages of 15 and 65 and actually has very little to do with Mr. Cliburn’s considerable and noteworthy abilities as a pianist. One has the impression that even if he were to play only chopsticks with two fingers, his “audience” would cry “Vanya” just as eagerly, pelt him with flowers, clutch at his clothes, follow him down the street and stand in front of his hotel waiting patiently for a friendly wave from his window. As remarkable and as genuine as this popularity is, it has little to do with musical ability. Cliburn, however, does perform with taste and musicality and with near technical perfection which is recognized by Soviet musical authorities. Following is the translation of only one critique, chosen at random from the many attached clippings, to illustrate that Cliburn is judged not only as a matinee idol but also as a musician:[Here follows an extract from an article published in Trud, June 11, 1960.]
[Here follows an extract from an article by A. Orfenov published in Soviet Culture, May 19, 1960.]
Huge crowds, long ovations and thousands of disappointed music lovers who were unable to purchase tickets were the rule of almost all the concerts by Stern, Cliburn and Peters. The latter was, of course, virtually unknown in the Soviet Union before her arrival. However, the news of her artistry, musicality and lovely personality quickly spread and preceded her to every city where she was to appear. In Erevan the crowd which mobbed her after her recital almost became a physical danger to her and had to be restrained by force. In Leningrad the ovations and calls for encores lasted so long (45 minutes) that Miss Peters nearly missed her train back to Moscow. She gave encore after encore. Finally when she had to change her clothes to rush to the station, hundreds of people waited at the hotel entrance for her and bade her farewell with applause, bravos and cheers. Some athletic admirers even ran after the car to the station to beg a final autograph and give her a departing hug. Following is an excerpt from one of the many glowing critical reviews which Miss Peters received:
[Here follows an extract from an article by Galina Barinova published in Sovietskaya Kultura, May 28, 1960.]
Among the many attributes of Miss Peters as an artist, her musical taste and technical perfection stand out. She sang German Lieder, French, Italian and American songs, operatic and oratorio arias in different and appropriate musical styles and in their original languages. As an encore, to the delight of her audiences, she sang two Russian songs in near-perfect Russian with an expressiveness which testified to the fact that she understood and felt deeply the words she was singing. The only disappointment generated by her appearances in the Soviet Union was her inability to stay longer, to give more concerts and to appear in opera performances. She was repeatedly invited to return for another tour.
Isaac Stern, popular and recognized for the great artist that he is, again performed with tremendous public and critical success to which the following review will testify:
Stern had the advantage of speaking Russian fluently and thereby being able to get into contact with and penetrate Soviet musical circles which are ordinarily closed to Americans who come to the Soviet Union. His personal friendship with Oistrakh, Kogan, Gillels and their families enabled him to learn much about what is going on among artists in this country and to gain insight into a certain stratum of Soviet society. He was most liberal in responding to requests for encores, additional concerts and demands upon his time.
The above report can give but a superficial impression of the impact which the American musicians and the My Fair Lady troupe made on Soviet audiences during the spring of this year. The Embassy can only recommend a continuation and an intensification of this program. It is believed that outstanding young American individual artists, who come here at little expense to the U.S. Government, often have as great an impact as large musical or theatrical ensembles. This is not meant to detract from the success of the My Fair Lady presentation or from such groups as the New York Philharmonic. It does mean, however, that if it is possible to increase the exchange of individual performers who come here on their own and supplement the occasional spectacular presentation which the Government is able to afford only rarely, U.S. culture will increasingly be recognized for what it really is: a vital, many-sided, free, expressive and multi-talented force which is part of our way of life. It is important, however, to keep the quality of the individuals as high as was maintained in the cases of Peters, Stern and Cliburn and the group of young actor-singers in My Fair Lady who impressed not only artistically but also as intelligent American citizens.
Edward L. Freers
Chargé d’Affaires ad interim
* Source: Department of State, Central Files, 511.61/7–1860. Official Use Only. Drafted by Hans N. Tuch.
Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958–1960
Volume X, Part 2, Eastern Europe; Finland; Greece; Turkey, Document 29