by Theo Russell
MUSICIANS and political activists gathered on 17th December at London’s Conway Hall to honour a great cultural figure, pioneering musician and fighter: Cornelius Cardew.
Seven musicians – pianists and violinists – performed works celebrating working class, anti-fascist and anti-imperialist struggles, and the public premiere of Cornelius Cardew – TheContent of Our Song, a superb film by Stuart Monro (available on Youtube).
By his early 20s Cardew’s talent was sufficiently recognised for the German modernist composer Karlheinz Stockhausen to employ him as an assistant. He said of Cardew:
“As a musician he was outstanding because he was not only a good pianist but also a good improviser... I gave him work to do which I have never given to any other musician, which means to work with me on the score I was composing. He was one of the best examples that you can find among musicians because he was well informed about the latest theories of composition as well as being a performer.”
Monro’s film provides further testimony to Cardew’s talent, in an interview with Sir Thomas Armstrong, then principal of the Royal Academy of Music (and hardly left-wing!). Armstrong explains his decision to give Cardew a post in spite of his left-wing views and activities, in the belief that would inspire a new generation of young musicians.
Monro’s film shows Cardew’s complete integration of music with the political struggles of his time, with Cardew and fellow musicians performing from the back of a lorry on demonstrations.
While teaching experimental music at Morley College in London 1968, Cardew helped launch the Scratch Orchestra, a large ensemble which anyone could join and for which he is probably best known. (A film by Monro of the orchestra, when he forgot to remove the lens cap, was described by one student as the “best avant-garde film ever”).
The Scratch Orchestra pioneered a new style of participatory music involving music, ordinary sounds and day-to-day activities. It took music to the people, performing not just at concert venues but in village halls.
In the early 1970s Cardew abandoned avant garde music and wrote the book entitled Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, which was critical of his own involvement with Stockhausen and avant garde music.
He joined the People’s Liberation Music collective, which used culture to support the liberation struggle in Ireland, striking miners, and the fight against the revival of neo-Nazism
Cardew became an admirer of Hardial Bains, the Canadian communist leader and leading anti-revisionist, who contributed the lyrics to the signature song of his later career We Sing for the Future. Cardew went on to be a member of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist).
He died in a hit-and-run car accident near his London home in East London on 13th December 1981. The driver was never found, and some have suggested he was killed because of his political activities.
The concert included revolutionary songs from Cardew’s Piano Albums, including the Thaelmann Variations, performed by Chisato Kusunoki, based on the theme of The Thaelmann Song (1934). It celebrates the German communist leader Ernst Thaelmann, who spent over 11 years in solitary confinement before being executed by the Nazis at Buchenwald in 1944.
Two pieces were based on famous Irish patriotic songs from the 1798 United Irish Rising, Boolavogue, about Father Murphy who emerged as a leader of the rising and was tortured and executed by the British (performed by The Ivory Duo – Panayotis Archontides and Natalie Tsaldarakis), and The Croppy Boy describing the capture and execution of a young “croppy” (rebel), played by Haydn Dickenson.
The Vietnam Sonata, celebrating the victories of the Vietnamese people, was played by David Griffiths. The Worker’s Song, an industrial folk tune which with new lyrics by the Progressive Cultural Association beginning with the words “I am a worker and I say it with pride”, was performed by Lesley Larkum on violin.
The concert ended with We Sing for the Future a piano solo performed by Kerry Yong, which Cardew described as “for youth, who face bleak prospects in the world dominated by imperialism, and whose aspirations can only be realised through the victory of revolution and socialism”.
Cardew may not be widely known today, but this event will contribute towards making Cardew’s unique contribution and ideals relevant to the struggles we face today.
In the words of the concert programme: “Cardew was a leading figure in the struggle against racism and fascism, organising the youth to take control of their future, and rousing the workers in defence of their rights.”