C O L D   W A R   C U L T U R A L   D I P L O M A C Y :  
T H E   R U S S I A N   T R I P  



From the Berlin blockade in 1948/9 through the Korean War of the early '50s to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the first years of the Cold War were times of heightened East/West tension marked by open conflict, stalemates, stand-offs, and periods of temporary thaw.

One such thaw came after Stalin's death in 1953 when his successor Kruschev 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.

So when Sir Arthur Bliss, Master of the Queen's Music, arranged for a representative group of British musicians to tour the USSR in 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. Kruschev was himself involved in the tour. And the plan was to programme modern British music alongside its Soviet equivalent in the course of sixteen concerts over three weeks.



Bliss invited six British musicians to join what The Times called 'a musical embassy':

Clarence Raybould, conductor
Jennifer Vyvyan, soprano
Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith, husband & wife piano duo
Alfredo Campoli, violinist
Leon Goosens, oboist
Gerald Moore, piano accompanist

The choice 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 well-established 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 clearly 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 in the event, that didn't happen. And in fact the tour nearly didn't happen for Vyvyan herself, due to ill health.

It was the first serious indication of the bronchial/asthmatic condition what would trouble the rest of her life and eventually cause her early death. This initial attack forced her to cancel all engagements and retreat to a nursing home during the month before the Russian tour began.


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Leaving London on April 14 1956, the delegates were confronted with the practical consequences of the cold war: no direct flights to Russia. The delegates 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 Khatchaturian 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.

The programme started on April 17 with a public rehearsal of the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra under Raybould, playing Bliss's Violin Concerto (with Campoli), Arnold Cooke's Oboe Concerto (Goossens), some Elgar, some Kabalevsky, and one of Vyvyan's standard arias: Mozart's Martern aller Arten from Seraglio. That evening Smith and Sellick played Beethoven and Vaughan Williams in the Great Hall of the Conservatory.


April 18 brought a chamber recital in the same hall featuring Goossens, Moore and Vyvyan – which Vyvyan's diary records as 'Altogether thrilling experience, although I only just got through'. April 19, the orchestral concert rehearsed two days earlier.

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On 21 April the musicians left immediately after an orchestral concert of Vaughan Williams, Walton and Bliss on the night train for Leningrad, Vyvyan 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'.

A Leningrad concert on 25 April included the first performance of Gordon Jacobs' Oboe Concerto ('the parts had luckily just arrived in time', recalled Bliss afterwards) and contributions from Vyvyan in which her diary says she 'sang very poorly despite feeling well. Got 4 calls – undeserved'.

On 27 April the delegates flew to Kiev via Minsk; and then, on 3 May, another flight to Kharkov where Vyvyan took part in an impromptu concert – filling in for Cyril Smith who, in the course of the tour, had suffered a stroke that paralysed his left arm. He never recovered and, as a result, spent the rest of his career playing specially written or adapted music for three hands with Phyllis Sellick.

Flying back to Moscow for a farewell concert attended by Kruschev, 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 April 8.

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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 reporters in her bath, smothered with flowers at every opportunity, sketched by artists, 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.

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.



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