Tuesday 3 October 2017

Rachmaninov Uncovered

When I first thought about writing about music, I remember the limits of my ambition being the idea of writing the programme notes for my local amateur orchestra. One day, it happened - the man who did them retired, and it turned out it wasn't as sought after a job as I'd imagined. A little later, I started playing the violin with the orchestra, very very badly, at the back of the 2nds. The job of designing to posters also came up, and I tried that out too.

I thought of all this the other day when I saw an angry professor of music on Twitter taking exception to the design of the CD on the cover of the new issue of BBC Music Magazine. I like to think of the professor of music in question as a friend of this blog, though I don't bring it up here intending to weigh in on one side or the other. Rather, it got me thinking about the way in which design suggests intention, or maybe its lack, and whether when borrowing imagery from the past, we aren't sometimes a little blasé about its origins.

But back to those posters. The only tools I ever had at my disposal were MS Publisher and the image editing software Gimp, which was on the receiving end of a lot of swearing and which I never really figured out. One of my first efforts was for a concert we put on of Russian music and, far more ignorant of Russian history than I now am, I reached for as many cliches as MS Publisher was fit to hold.

I threw slanty propaganda-style text at it, a splash of anachronistic red (look at the composers involved) and an image of St Basil's Cathedral for good measure. I had remembered putting in some Cyrillic style backwards Rs, but I clearly thought better of it before submitting the final draft. This concoction of visual stereotypes seems rather ghastly to me now, but it did the job at the time.

Next for the over-literal-visual-treatment was the New World Symphony. You can probably spot some Morris tropes beginning to develop - the big white spaces (you couldn't have a hard edge or border because the cutting process wasn't that precise), primary colours, and a favourite MS font which sadly doesn't appear in more recent versions of the programme. You know what, though? I still rather like this one.

This next one came from the legendary occasion when we played a November 11th remembrance concert with a difference - the difference being the inclusion of the first movement of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony, for reasons which made sense to us at the time. It was as incredible as it sounds. And a fun fact - the future principal trumpet of the Philharmonia was one of 4 trumpet extras we added to our existing two, just for that piece. 

Now this one, if I may say, was a visual coup. I still have no idea how I managed to get Beethoven's eyes inside the shape of a lark (again, look at the programme).

The same sea of white space in this Elgar one, but you know what? I stand by it. Nice job.

This was my last and, if I may say, Best Ever BSO poster. I had learnt what to do with the oodles of required information, and I think really maxed out the potential of MS Publisher. But enough of BSO posters already - what about Rachmaninov?

Rachmaninov left Russia for good in 1917, after the October/November Revolution. Florid programme notes (like mine) like to describe the eve of his departure, with bullets whistling down the streets outside while the composer, in a white-heat of inspiration, rewrote his youthful 1st Piano Concerto, barely noticing the sounds of the world changing. But he was no fan of the Bolsheviks, and the loss of his homeland was clearly a source of great distress to him.

So it's rather incongruous for BBC Music Magazine to have slapped a picture of Lenin (in stained glass??) on the front of their cover CD, which features a performance of Rachmaninov's Preludes. What did Rachmaninov have to do with Lenin? As little as possible, the joke might end. Our musicologist friend put this to the publication, who responded that Lenin had more to do with Prokofiev and the disc's artist, Sviatoslav Richter, though it's hard to know quite what - Prokofiev skipped the country a few months after the Revolution and only resettled in the country in 1936, twelve years after Lenin's death. And Richter, though based in the Soviet Union until its demise, had his international career thoroughly thwarted by Soviet concert planners, who clearly saw him as some sort of flight risk (this is covered in Bruno Monsaingeon's excellent documentary on Soviet music, The Red Baton (Notes Interdites in the original French), and quite possibly in his essential film-interview with Richter, though it's been years since I saw that so I can't remember).

So there's an issue of relevance, though that's hardly new - British cultural institutions are quite happy to wheel out the Russian visual cliches to shift their Russian concerts, etc, and I can tell you that when designing that first poster, I was just drawing on the sort of visual shorthands for Russia that are all around in PR (silly me). It isn't unusual to see musical programmes relating to aspects of Russian history that include music only very tenuously connected to it. I wonder if we'd accept the same sort of tokenistic approach to cultures more readily associated with the current interest in identity politics?

There's a deeper problem, though, and it has to do with the willingness to reach for imagery that has altogether more sinister associations. It's actually unthinkable that a CD company would decorate their disc with an image of Hitler, and highly unlikely they'd go for Mussolini, or Franco, yet the Soviets aren't so off-limits. Lenin didn't commit the crimes of Stalin, but his rule was based on a large-scale disregard for the lives of those deemed outside the Communist project, and it's worth remembering that his economic policies during the Russian Civil War led to the deaths of millions of people through starvation. What would we be saying about our attitudes towards or even knowledge of these issues if we thought of his image as something attractive to cut and paste onto out CD cover? It's certainly not "overthinking" the problem to ask this question.

It's not as though BBC Music Magazine is alone in appropriating the imagery of totalitarian Russia. We are particularly in thrall to Stalinist propaganda, and with some good reason - its distinctive, highly effective and visually appealing. But we have to ask what that style was in service of, and whether we betray a certain crass disregard for its implications by pinching it to spice up our PR campaigns. I suspect this problems arises from the lack of clean break with Leninist and Stalinist Russia, which never fell from Western favour with the force that some those European fascist regimes did in 1945. Stalin lived on, having really won the Second World War, and his own propagandist legacy never decisively became the other half of a binary shared with Western might and light, in the way Hitler's did.

So the imagery stays with us, but without the black and white moral colouring of an SS uniform. Images, though, do add up to something, particularly in combination with other images. Any designer should be aware that pictures from the past carry worlds of baggage and meaning, and that we must dip into the art-box of history with caution. 

There was some discussion about the preferred spelling of Rachmaninov - He himself was apparently in favour of Rachmaninoff, but I just can't do it myself. I do look forward to hearing the Rachmaninov disc, and to discovering if the cover article on Shostakovich and the Soviet government departs from the formula.  The image of the November issue of BBC Music Magazine was posted on their Twitter account. I made all those posters, so I suppose the copyright rests with me; any other images have been used for the purposes of review and study and fall under "fair use"; they will be removed at the request of the copyright holder(s).

1 comment:

Andrew Morris said...

It's worth adding that, despite the impression given on the front cover, Daniel Jaffe's article on music in the Soviet Union turns out not to be the usual "Shostakovich Vs Stalin" stuff, but rather a detailed and very illuminating exploration of the way in which policy on music changed in the country between the death of Lenin and the reign of Stalin.