REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture: Thornton Miller, “Agency and Access: The Soviet Performance of British Contemporary Music during the Early Cold War”


On February 12th, 2019, Thornton Miller gave a lecture entitled “Agency and Access: The Soviet Performance of British Contemporary Music during the Early Cold War.” Miller is a PhD Candidate in Musicology here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His dissertation research hones in on the professional agency of British and Soviet composers, concert agents, performers, and publishers in the Anglo-Soviet cultural exchange, and his noontime lecture dealt with one aspect of this research.

Miller’s talk centered around the societal position of Soviet music professionals during the Cold War era, focusing on the agency granted to them through their unique societal position. These music professionals were afforded better housing and access to international travel, which then allowed them to evade many of the obstacles to cultural exchange during this era. With this agency also came access to British contemporary music, and with this access came their championing for performances of this music in the Soviet Union.

Among these music professionals are Dzhemal Dalgat of the Kirov Theater in Leningrad and Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Mikhail Chulaki of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow; these musicians stood at the center of Miller’s talk. These orchestral conductors lobbied specifically for the performances of Benjamin Britten’s orchestral compositions. Interestingly, Chulaki and Dalgat also pushed for the performances of Britten’s music in their theaters, desiring multiple performances throughout the concert season. These performances included Britten’s Peter Grimes and The Prince of the Pagodas at the Kirov Theater and A Midsummer’s Night Dream at the Bolshoi Theater. These performances are crucial, because, as Miller points out, Britten was the first living composer of a capitalist country to have their works performed in the Kirov and Bolshoi Theaters’ general repertoires.

Of course, these performances didn’t come without a slew of issues to be faced. As Miller mentions, there were some topics considered to be taboo at this juncture in time; therefore, some minor details needed to be changed in order to avoid certain scandal. For this very reason, a Moscow radio studio referred to Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem simply as Symphony in D. Likewise, Dalgat was tasked with proving the viability of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, which came under both aesthetic and ideological scrutiny. Most interesting, perhaps, is the challenge Chulaki faced concerning criticisms of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which surfaced during the dress rehearsals. These criticisms included calling the music ‘pederasticheskaia,’ or pederastic. Miller postulates that it could potentially be read as a metaphor for western modernism, or even a reference to Britten’s homosexuality; however, it is likely meant to be a metaphor referring to musical style. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note the performances of all of these pieces ensued despite any hesitancies and criticisms, due in large part to the agency of musical professionals.

Miller concluded by reinforcing the notion that the relationship between the Soviet Ministry of Culture and the music professionals must not be viewed as that of a state repressing the artists. Their relationship was, rather, that of a compromise—a compromise that granted these music professionals the agency necessary to bring these pieces to performing groups in the Soviet Union.

Danielle Sekel is a graduate student in the Department of Musicology. Her research interests include Balkan music festivals in diaspora and the history and continuing relevance of these festivals.

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