In the years that followed World War II a so-called Cold War stifled Anglo-Soviet cultural relations. From the Berlin blockade in 1948/9 through the Korean War of the early ’50s to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, these were times of heightened East/West tension marked by open conflict, stalemates, stand-offs, and the constant risk of nuclear engagement.
That said, there were also periods of temporary thaw when things looked brighter; and an example came after Stalin’s death in 1953 when his successor Krushchev admitted ‘past mistakes’. Cultural exchange became a possibility, and selected Soviet artists like David Oistrakh began to appear in Britain. But the visits were few and far between, and it remained difficult for British artists to reciprocate with tours to Russia. The now-celebrated International Tchaikovsky Competition held in Moscow and St Petersburg was still to be: it launched in 1958. And Benjamin Britten’s productive friendship with Shostakovich hadn’t begun: they met for the first time in 1960.
So when Sir Arthur Bliss, Master of the Queen’s Music, arranged for a representative group of British musicians to tour the USSR in the Spring of 1956, it was a high-profile event: the result of painstaking negotiation and cause for intense curiosity on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
According to a carefully-worded Times appraisal it was ‘not an official mission but the outcome, with official blessing, of a personal invitation’ to Bliss. The tour was sponsored by the Soviet Relations Committee of the British Council. Krushchev was himself involved (like Stalin he professed an interest in music – though his tastes were firmly anchored in melodic populism, following the official line of ‘intransigent opposition to abstractionism, formalism and other bourgeois perversions’ restated in his 1963 Declaration on Music in Soviet Society). And the plan was to programme modern British music alongside its Soviet equivalent in the course of sixteen concerts over three weeks.
Bliss invited seven British musicians to join what The Times called ‘a musical embassy’. Jennifer Vyvyan was one. The rest were:
Clarence Raybould (1889 – 1972), a conductor who had assisted Beecham, worked with the British National Opera Company, the BBCSO and LSO, and was known for radio performances – including significant broadcasts of music by Bliss and Prokofiev which no doubt commended him for the Russian tour. Other broadcasts included first performances of early Britten works – the radio music for King Arthur (1937) and Canadian Carnival (1940), though he later refused to conduct Britten’s Matinees Musicales in 1943 on the grounds that he disapproved of Britten’s wartime pacifism. Fascinatingly, he wrote in 1916 an operatic setting of the same Japanese noh-play, Sumidagawa, that Britten would use half a century later as the basis for his Curlew River.
Alfredo Campoli (1906-1991), the Italian-born but London-raised violinist who made his name with a Wigmore Hall debut aged just 17. He went on to record an extensive discography, consolidating his fame with film appearances in the 1930s/40s. And in 1955 he gave the first performance of Bliss’s Violin Concerto, which explains his presence on the tour.
Leon Goossens (1897-1988), a celebrity oboist who first appeared as a soloist with the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, aged 15, and went on to have works written for him by Bliss, Bax, Elgar, Howells and Vaughan Williams. His sound combined the best of the opposing French and German schools. And he was part of a famous musical dynasty, most of whose members shared, confusingly, the same name. His grandfather Eugene Goossens was a Belgian-born conductor who relocated to England and became associated with Gilbert & Sullivan performances as well as the Carl Rosa opera company. His father Eugene Goossens also conducted the Carl Rosa company. And his brother Sir Eugene Goossens successively conducted the Cincinatti and Sydney Symphony Orchestras before his career ended ignominiously after an occult-related pornography scandal.
Gerald Moore (1889 – 1987), the leading piano accompanist of his time. Born in Britain but raised in Canada, his career was established by the 1930s. And as the trusted performance partner of vocal stars like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Victoria de los Angeles and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, he went on to elevate the status of what had previously been thought a lesser musical calling. He retired in 1967 but lived on through legendary recordings, and as a popular author/raconteur.
Phyllis Sellick (1911-2007) and Cyril Smith (1909-1974) , husband & wife piano duo. At the time of their marriage in 1937 they had separate solo careers, with Smith becoming known for screen appearances in the early days of television. During the War they toured together for ENSA, and afterwards found popular fame as a duo in the Albert Hall Proms. Composers like Vaughan Williams and Bliss wrote for them. And they both ended up teaching at the RCM where their students included David Helfgott (the schizoid Australian made famous by the movie Shine), Fanny Waterman (founder of the Leeds Piano Competition) and the organist Dame Gillian Weir. But by then their duo career had been complicated by a stroke that Smith suffered in the course of this Russian tour – see below.
The choice of Bliss’s ’embassy’ was in fact strangely unrepresentative of the best of British music-making, and criticised as such in the UK press. Goossens, Campoli and Moore were unassailable, acknowledged stars, and as the News Chronicle said of Vyvyan: ‘this young soprano who gripped London audiences in Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw will dazzle the Russians in the Mozart she plans to sing them’. But Smith and Sellick were thought less exciting, despite their championship of new British music. And Clarence Raybould was not a conductor of the stature of Barbirolli, Boult, Beecham or Sargent.
Vyvyan’s first diary reference to her invitation, in March 1955, suggests that Britten and Pears were to be part of the delegation. But this didn’t happen. And in fact the tour nearly didn’t happen for Vyvyan herself, due to ill health.
It was an early indication of the bronchial/asthmatic condition that would trouble the rest of her life and eventually cause her death. This initial attack forced her to cancel all engagements and retreat to a nursing home, then a convalescent home, during the month before the Russian tour began. Arriving in Moscow on April 15th, she was unwell again and missed both an initial sightseeing expedition and a concert of music by Khachaturian.
The tour ran from 17 April to 7 May and took in sixteen concerts:
6 in Moscow – April 17-22
5 in Leningrad – April 22-28
3 in Kiev – April 28-May 2
2 in Kharkov – May 4-5
The repertoire was:
Elgar: Cockaigne Overture
Bliss: Violin Concerto
Gordon Jacob: Oboe Concerto No.2 (world premiere)
Kabalevsky: Suite from the opera Colas Breugnon
Walton: Portsmouth Point Overture
Vaughan Williams: London Symphony
Berkeley: Concerto for Two Pianos
Bliss: Suite from the ballet Checkmate
Voice & Piano
Purcell: Hark the Echoing Air, Dido’s Lament, Nymphs and Shepherds, Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation (arr Britten)
Mozart: Martern aller Arten/Seraglio
Rossini: Songs from Soirees Musicales (including La Promessa, La Danza)
Britten: Folk-song arrangements (including Waly Waly, Polly Oliver, Ca the Yowes)
Kabalevsky: Tale of the Old Woman
Oboe & Piano
Scarlatti (arr Bryan): Suite in 5 movements
Dunhill: 3 Pieces
Vaughan Williams: Introduction & Fugue (2 pianos)
Bax: Moy Mell (2 pianos)
Milhaud: Scaramouche (2 pianos)
Holst: Toccata (solo)
Beethoven: Waldstein Sonata (solo)
Vaughan Williams: The Lake in the Mountains (solo)
Ferguson: Two Bagatelles (solo)
Bax: Country Tune (solo)
Ireland: Amberley Wild Brooks (solo)
All the artists except Campoli and Moore (who followed two days later) left London on April 14 1956 and were immediately faced with the practical consequences of the cold war: no direct flights to Russia. They flew BEA to Copenhagen, then a Finnish flight to Helsinki, followed by another Finnish flight to Moscow.
Vyvyan’s diary notes the ‘poor food’ on the BEA flight and the gruelling length of the journey – which left her too ill and tired on arrival to do much except sleep for the next few days. But the Russians turned the arrival into a media event, with the composers Kabalevsky and Khachaturian welcoming the plane on its touchdown just before midnight. Every one of the sixteen concerts was sold out in advance. And the musicians found themselves instant celebrities, acknowledged in the street and pursued by journalists in their hotel rooms.
As the Russians filmed and photographed the British ’embassy’, so the ’embassy’ filmed the Russians, with a home-made documentary shot on Campoli’s colour movie camera.
The programme started on April 17 with a public rehearsal at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire in which the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra played Bliss’s Violin Concerto (soloist Campoli) and Gordon Jacob’s brand new Oboe Concerto No.2 (soloist Goossens), for which the parts had ‘luckily arrived just in time’ as Bliss later recalled. There was also some Elgar, some Kabalevsky, and one of Vyvyan’s standard arias: Martern aller Arten from Mozart’s Seraglio. That evening Smith and Sellick played Beethoven and Vaughan Williams, also in the Great Hall.
April 18 brought a chamber recital in the same venue featuring Goossens, Moore and Vyvyan – which Vyvyan’s diary records as ‘Altogether thrilling experience, although I only just got through’. On April 19 came the orchestral concert rehearsed two days earlier.
On 21 April Vyvyan went alone to make some radio recordings and was paid a ‘fabulous sum for 24minutes’ work’. Later, after an orchestral concert of Vaughan Williams, Walton and Bliss, she left on the night train for Leningrad, sharing a sleeping compartment with an interpreter and two complete strangers. Also in the group was Vladimir ‘a very large young man who is, I think, in charge of us’ (letter from Vyvyan to her mother, 23 April).
That same letter describes the tour as ‘going nicely for everyone – though if there is one star it is Campoli who is just not allowed to go home until he has given six encores and the lights are lowered’. It adds that ‘there is just a little friction over the posters, where I am billed in large letters. Goossens is smaller and Gerald is weeny. It has annoyed them both quite a lot and I hope it may be possible to alter them in the next 2 towns’.
The first Leningrad concert on 22 April was a Vyvyan/Moore recital that ran on until 11.45pm with endless encores that only stopped because Moore had a phone-call booked to London: such things had to pre-arranged. Vyvyan’s diary records vodka for supper.
25 April brought another Leningrad concert at which Vyvyan reports she ‘sang very poorly despite feeling well. Got 4 calls, undeserved’.
On April 26 she did a fifty-minute phone interview with a London journalist. And on 27 April she flew to Kiev via Minsk for a televised concert with ‘wonderful reception..afterwards people waited for me to leave and cheered. Whoopee. Champagne for dinner’.
On 3 May there was another flight to Kharkov, in the course of which her English songs went missing. And there, the following night, the schedules were thrown into disarray by an unexpected disaster that required Vyvyan and others to deliver an impromptu concert, filling in for Smith and Sellick.
On the flight to Kharkov Smith had suffered a thrombosis and stroke that paralysed his left arm. It was a life-changing catastrophe that he and Sellick subsequently described in their stiffly written memoir Duet for Three Hands (Angus & Robertson, 1958). As they record, the trip had been going well for them in terms of audience response – which was ‘overwhelming’ – but they were comparably overwhelmed by the punishing schedule and the element of chaos in it all.
‘Our Russian hosts never told us where we were going, what trains or planes we should be catching, or the names of the hotels where we should stay, so we felt completely cut off from home’.
On top of the planned concerts they found themselves coerced into giving impromptu TV recitals in the wrong clothes, and on pianos where the notes stuck. Which they found embarrassing. On one occasion they were asked to make some recordings that they thought were for radio but ‘were instantly turned into commercial discs, on poor pianos’. There was consolation in the fact that they were ‘paid in roubles, handsomely, at the rate of army generals’. But the stress took its toll.
Smith had previously suffered a thrombosis attack, which was one reason why he had only agreed to do the Russian tour as part of a duo with his wife: the original invitation had been for him to come alone, performing solo repertoire.
In Kharkov, Smith was taken into hospital where he stayed with Sellick while the others had to fly back to Moscow to complete the tour: ‘everyone greatly distressed’, says Vyvyan’s diary. No doubt they felt uncomfortable in moving on, because they left Sellick and Smith a cache of curious little presents: soap from Goossens, a brooch from Vyvyan, sleeping tablets from Campoli, and an English-Russian dictionary from Raybould.
Smith and Sellick certainly felt helpless and abandoned – to such an extent that Trudy Bliss, Arthur’s wife, then flew back from Moscow to be with them. Smith eventually was moved by train to Moscow, where he stayed another two weeks in hospital. Too ill to fly, he was eventually transported by train, on a stretcher, back to London – in what proved to be a nightmare journey via Warsaw and Paris that lasted five days.
The enduring damage to his left hand put an end to Smith’s solo career (there’s a substantial keyboard repertoire for left hand only, thanks to some significant commissions by Paul Wittgenstein who lost an arm in World War I, but almost nothing for the right). As time passed, though, he managed to return to playing as part of a three-handed duo with his wife, adapting pre-existing works to meet their circumstances, and commissioning new ones from composers like Malcolm Arnold.
As for the rest of Bliss’s ’embassy’, their return to Moscow was evidently stressful and occasionally fractious: Vyvyan notes ‘Leon and Gerald both rude to me at lunch. Rather upset’. On May 7 there was a farewell concert attended by Krushchev and the British ambassador William Hayter, and a dinner hosted by the Soviet Ministry of Culture.
The surviving members of the party changed their money at 7 roubles to the pound (a pernicious rate) and retraced the journey back to London via Helsinki and Copenhagen on May 8, seen off at the airport by Kabalevsky.
Bliss told the Evening Standard that he wasn’t interested in politics. But the political implications of this ’embassy’ were unavoidable; and the anxiety of the British press and public over Anglo-Soviet relations ensured that every detail of this tour was widely reported.
Vyvyan was bothered by a reporter in her bath (he ‘stayed outside until I let him in to take some pictures. One of his bulbs exploded’) , smothered with flowers at every opportunity, sketched by artists for magazines, recorded on Russian radio and TV, and gave down-the-line interviews to the UK press back home – avoiding reference to her illness and insecurities.
Public awareness of the visit was indeed extraordinary. Vyvyan records attending the great May Day parade in Moscow, watching as the troops marched by and finding that ‘people in the procession recognised us and called my name. Most moving compliment’.
Politically and artistically the whole affair was deemed successful – not least by Kabalevsky who wrote about it in Pravda, singling out Vyvyan for the ‘special quality’ of her Purcell, the combination of even melody and coloratura brilliance in her Rossini, and the ‘charm and humour’ she brought to Kabalevsky’s own setting of an English text The Tale of the Old Woman.