June 30, 2023


Greetings, Spy Vibers! One of the little corners of history that has interested me as I work on my upcoming book is how music intersected with the Cold War. My book will include some analysis of how styles and themes within art and design played key roles in many aspects of genre pop culture, from those archetypal evil villain lairs to the use of abstract painting in set design. Even though my focus is essentially on film and television projects about fictional spies and detectives (and villains!), these works also reflected their times and art and music played an important role. Spy Vibers will probably be familiar with the US State Department's efforts to use jazz to promote American ideology and win allies abroad by sending artists like The Dave Brubeck Quartet to trouble spots. This political climate also intersected with the classical music world. Major soloists and conductors from both East and West took part in good-will tours, forging relationships and proving to the other side that culture, either under communism or capitalism, continued to thrive. Touring the West, along with recording co-productions, also became a way for the struggling economy of East Germany to raise income, but there was always a fear that the talent would make a run for it and never return. Musicians in the GDR were often tapped by the Stasi to watch their colleagues for signs of defection. And under communist control, repertoire was controlled and limited mainly to an ideological formalism. For musicians in West Berlin, both the Wall and the eventual limiting of wages to East German currency even separated them from their employment in Eastern productions; yet another manifestation of a city and culture divided. As the world of the East became more insular, there were many classical artists from the West who visited to foster good relations. Even C.R. Fine and Wilma Cozart-Fine were allowed to bring their Mercury records mobile van to the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire to record the Russian State Folk Orchestra. Pianists such as Glenn Gould, Byron Janis, and others became instant celebrities during their tours behind the Curtain. One of the brightest stars in this orbit was American pianist Van Cliburn. Cliburn was a young prodigy who raced onto the international scene after winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia in 1958. One of his loudest supporters was Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who became a life-long fan and friend. Van's appearances ignited a kind of Cliburn-mania, generating items like pinups and publications which were traded among his loyal followers. He was a sensation and the phenomenon landed the young pianist on the cover of Time that year -and inspired special attention from the US intelligence community, who wondered how Van's unique position might be used for political advantage. And while these real-life stories played out, fans of suave fictional detectives and international spies in the West were seeing similar themes echoed in genre entertainment. Ian Fleming, for example, included a female orchestra musician in his cocktail of Bond, assassins, and Berlin escapes in "The Living Daylights" (Sunday Times/1962). John Steed and Cathy Gale of The Avengers aided a traveling Russian pianist in "Concerto" (1964). And one of the most touching stories about a classical soloist and defector appeared in TV's Johnny Staccato with John Cassavetes, but more on that when my book finally comes together! If Spy Vibers are interested in learning more about Van Cliburn specifically, check out Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story--How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War by Nigel Cliff. You can find lots of Cliburn in Moscow DVDs (and more) at VAI Music. And Cliburn memorabilia from Russia is often found on eBay. If you are interested in the Berlin classical music scene, check out the DVD Classical Music and Cold War: Musicians in the GDR. One of my personal faves about pianist Glenn Gould's Soviet tours is called Russian Journey. Below: Russian books circa 1950s-1960s, Nigel Cliff book cover. Related posts: Notes Behind the Curtain 1Notes Behind the Curtain 2Notes Behind the Curtain 3Notes Behind the Curtain 4, and one post revised as the Goldfinger Variations.

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