A friend asked me recently if I have a favourite violinist, it’s a fair question, being a violinist myself; but as I cycled through the greats – Heifetz, Perlman, Bell, Kennedy, Grappelli, Vengerov, Mutter, Hanslip – I kept being drawn in my head to one particular maestro who is far less known today. I first heard his playing in sixth form when I started to tackle the Frank Sonata in A major. It was a scratchy LP that I’d taken off the under-appreciated shelves of recordings inherited over the years by the music department (one of the many reasons I cherish having gone to a comprehensive school); stark in its black cover interrupted only by foreign sounding names – OISTRAKH, RICHTER, FRANCK, BRAHMS – I’d found what I was after. Through that unmistakeable sound of old vinyl, I heard the most lyrically expressive and magical sonority that I’d yet experienced from the instrument I was trying in vain to master. Nearly ten years later, I can still hear it. It’s an unusual choice, for sure, and an unexpected one these days (to non-musicians I usually say Nigel Kennedy or Joshua Bell) but there you have it: the Ukrainian-Soviet violinist, David Oistrakh, is my favourite.

David Oistrakh (1908-1974)
David Oistrakh (1908-1974)

From the 1940s through to 1974 when he died, in Amsterdam, at the height of his fame and powers, Oistrakh was the cause célèbre of Soviet classical music, at least in terms of instrumentalists. In large part that was because, unlike his great contemporaries such as Jascha Heifetz or Mstislav Rostropovich, Oistrakh never fled from the Soviet Union. He was, of course, also pretty damned good. Consequently, he enjoyed privileges not extended to ordinary citizens of the state like a passport, which he used to leave the country on tours, or to record in London with HMV or EMI, and great fame amplified by the dedication of concertos and sonatas from the likes of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Aram Khachaturian. In the 1960s, at a time when Britain was basking in the musical glow of the Beatles and politicians, including Harold Wilson, rushed to see and be seen with them, the Soviet Union threw up as its great hope the exactitude of a classical musician. Doesn’t quite fit with the stereotype, does it?

Well, let’s not be hasty. Classical music existed in much the same way in the Soviet Union as it did in the west, a high-brow form of culture that appealed to the well-educated and to older generations. Amongst younger members of society, there was a great clamour for jazz and other popular forms of music. Consider this report of a trip to a nightclub in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, in 1952:

Dance orchestras are not allowed to play American jazz. On this January evening the orchestra played a number resembling jazz in tempo […] a young couple began jitterbugging. After a few tense moments passed, a group of about 20 communists rushed to the floor, dragged the boy and girl outside and flogged them mercilessly. […] I noticed that many people drink a great deal in such places. One nearly intoxicated man explained his overindulgence to me. “Drunk or sober, my situation is always the same”.[1]

It was a similar experience in Poland, where jazz thrived amongst youth subcultures and amongst underground movements.[2] Here, too, dancing the jitterbug or playing music with the tempo and rhythm that evoked ‘hot jazz’ found in Paris or New York could land you in hot water.[3] And in Czechoslovakia, well there was a love of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bing Crosby, at least in the larger towns.[4] Over the years, underground engagement with western popular music continued in earnest despite official repression and censorship of musical endeavour. In mid-1960s Albania, for instance, rock-and-roll had the same entrancing effect on musicians there as it had had on the youth of Britain a decade earlier.[5] Songs and sheet music were copied in samizdat form, similar to that of underground journals and banned books, and shared amongst like-minded individuals, and clothing and hairstyles evoked a certain disregard for the official way of doing things.[6] Here’s Bulgaria again, from a report into musical tastes, only this time from the early 1970s:

Among the most popular hits were “Delilah” (sung by Tom Jones) and the Beatles’ songs. The inquiry also reflects changes in musical taste as the young people grow older. Some 60 per cent of 12-year-olds go in for pop music and only 12 per cent for operatic music, while among the 18-year-olds these percentages are 36.6 per cent and 24.4 per cent respectively.[7]

That’ll be a trivia question at a pub quiz one day! It reveals something quite striking though, doesn’t it, which is that for all the remarkable difficulties that Communism effected, the state repression and censorship, musical instincts weren’t all that different from the habits of teenagers and young people in the west. And why not, Delilah is a cracking tune. It was released, for those who’ve forgotten, in 1968; that report is dated 1971. Not bad dissemination considering the ‘iron curtain’.

Where does this leave classical music? It, of course, enjoyed pre-eminent status and was intended as the vehicle for the varying forces of narodnost and partiinost, that is (in broad terms since the terms are ill-translated from Russian) fidelity to the nation (the narod) and its people and fidelity to the party and its principles. Works of literature, art, and music, all had to fit within tight boundaries to the former, in particular, and artists had to proclaim the later at every opportunity. Artists had to choose, therefore, between going along with the regime or rejecting it, subtly or overtly, and live subsequently in fear of repression. For Oistrakh, as for Shostakovich, the decision was made to ‘remain loyal to Russia, to the country, irrespective of who is in power’. From then on, he demonstrated his commitment to the furtherance of Soviet music championing works by leading composers and teaching succeeding generations of violinists such as the youthful Czech virtuoso Vaclav Hudecek (more about him next time).

Shostakovich: Fire Fighter.
Shostakovich: Fire Fighter.

During the Second World War, he threw himself into the war effort, as did Shostakovich and other composers and musicians, providing concerts and helping out in the fire brigades. It was in the midst of war, in 1942, that he joined the Communist Party and though interpretations may vary of his motivations, the principle of ‘survival’ seems a strong one, he would later explain that ‘I owe this regime, whatever its faults, my life’. Indeed, the war, it seems reasonable suggest, amplified his sense of loyalty and national fervour, his personal narodnost and partiinost. Oistrakh took enormous risk, for instance, to play Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto during an air raid over Leningrad in February 1943, having flown into the blockaded city to perform for its beleaguered residents. ‘I’m amazed’, he wrote home, ‘that in grim Leningrad, where the enemy is at the gates, people are still listening to music in spite of inhuman conditions’.

There was, of course, a hinterland to all of this and it dates back to the very beginning of the Soviet regime, of Bolshevik Russia. Oistrakh was not yet ten years old when the October Revolution overthrew the Kerensky government and marked the transition to Communism. After years of war, the poverty and hardship in Odessa, his hometown, were palpable; then, in 1920, the Soviets established control of the city and gave bread rations to schools, including his own music school, and the young Oistrakh was able to secure the welfare of his family, to give them some slight relief from the wider poverty from which they suffered. He wrote later that ‘I will never forget the day I came home proud and happy and put a whole loaf of bread on the table. This was a week’s bread ration given to me by the state’. Whatever the consequences of his loyalty (support may be too strong a word) to the Communist regime, as it was viewed from the outside, Oistrakh had clear personal reasons for his feelings.

None of which detracts from the compromises that musicians had to make. Had Oistrakh fled to the West he would have been one of the wealthiest classical musicians in the world; instead, by remaining in the Soviet Union, he lived on the payments given to him by the government, which pocketed the enormous profits made by Oistrakh’s concert performances in the West, and the supplements that could be earned by teaching. Andrei Olkhovsky, writing in the 1950s, characterised the situation for composers, in particular, like this:

Soviet composers live under the same conditions as ordinary inhabitants of the Soviet Union. With rare exceptions they have only a single room for their family, often composing to the accompaniment of a baby’s cries and the smell of burning food. There are literally no more than ten Soviet composers whose royalties and whose knowledge of “the ropes” have secured for them comparative comfort.[8]

It was little different for musicians; although, because of the relatively privileged position of classical musicians in Communist societies, they could live reasonably well. Orchestral musicians in Poland, for example, earned 1,400 zloty a month at a time when the average salary across the state was nearer half that amount. This salary was based broadly on the number of concerts given, with each providing around 150 zloty. Soloists, then as now, earned more and could enjoy a return of 1,200 zloty per concert.[9] In Hungary, too, musicians enjoyed a better wage than average Hungarians: there earning around 2,000 forints a month, with premiums for principal instruments in the orchestra – first clarinet, first trumpet, and so on.[10] Now, Oistrakh was not your average musician and we know that high-profile artists earned significantly more than the massed ranks of violins, violas, and cellos that were the mainstay of orchestral music. Yet, the disparity between what he did earn and what he could have earned was enormous, as it was for so many of the communist greats.

To bring this blog to a close, it’s worth dwelling for a moment on what music can tell us about communist society after the Second World War. Very clearly, these were societies that were directed to prioritise the classical tradition over emerging popular styles whether jazz, rock and roll, or pop music as we know it today. Classical musicians earned better salaries than blue collar workers (an irony, you might say, for a worker’s state) and the more popular styles were subject to persecution or arms-length disapproval. In short, music was just as complicated and appealing as it was in western society. That’s the theme I want to return to after the interval.


[1] “Night Life in Sofia: Youth Loves Jazz”, 13 January 1953. HU OSA 300-1-2-29762; Records of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Institute: General Records: Information Items; Open Society Archives at Central European University, Budapest.

[2] “In Favor of More Jazz”, 25 November 1955. HU OSA 300-1-2-64276.

[3] “Communists Warm it up for Polish Visitors – Hot Jazz, Jive and Jitterbugs in Communist Club”, 10 June 1953. HU OSA 300-1-2-35404.

[4] “CSR-Youths Like Bing”, 16  July 1952. HU OSA 300-1-2-22680.

[5] “Albanian Musicians under the Influence of the Twist and Rock-and-Roll”, 7 July 1964. HU OSA 300-8-3-13355.

[6] “Strangers in a Strange Land: Music from the Czechoslovak Underground”, 12 January 1979. HU OSA 300-8-3-2315; Records of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Institute: Publications Department: Background Reports; Open Society Archives at Central European University, Budapest.

[7] “Situation Report: Bulgaria, 16 June 1971”. HU OSA 300-8-47-27-17.

[8] Andrei Olkhovsky, Music Under the Soviets: The Agony of Art (London, 1955), p.122.

[9] “Music in Cracow”, 1 September 1954. HU OSA 300-1-2-49998; “Musicians in Poland”, 17 December 1956. HU OSA 300-1-2-77236.

[10] “CURPH Interview 252 with a 1956 Hungarian Refugee:  35 Years Old, Male, Member of the Radio Symphony Orchestra”, 1957. HU OSA 414-0-2-225; Donald and Vera Blinken Collection on Hungarian Refugees of 1956: Transcripts of Refugee Interviews; Open Society Archives at Central European University, Budapest.

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