Talk on the Impact of the Friendship between Britten and Shostakovich on Diplomatic Relations during the Cold War

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  • Dr Cameron Pyke (author of Benjamin Britten in Russia)
  • Jan Latham-Koenig (Artistic Director of the BSFO)
  • Dan Driscoll (Shostakovich specialist)
  • Ismene Brown (cultural journalist)

On the Occasion of the Inaugural Tour of the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra

Inspired by the great Cold War friendship between Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and British composer Benjamin Britten, conductor Jan Latham Koenig launches the first British-Russian orchestra – The Britten Shostakovich Festival Orchestra (BSFO) – bringing together the most talented young musicians from Britain and Russia for an extensive tour of the two countries in September.

A non-governmental initiative supported by leading conservatoires, the BSFO’s inaugural residency will offer an exceptional cultural collaboration for these young musicians at the start of their careers. In a programme expressing a mutual appreciation of both cultures, the Orchestra will tour with outstanding soloists Jennifer Pike and Pavel Kolesnikov, and actors Edward Fox and Freddie Fox, who will recite scenes from Shostakovich’s film score to Hamlet.

The historic acquaintance between the great minds of Britten and Shostakovich resulted in the most unlikely cross-border collaborations, which enabled both countries to experience and celebrate not only the music of these great musical giants but also of each other’s musical cultures. Enabled by their mutual friendship with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, both Britten and Shostakovich were able to traverse the ideological boundaries of the Cold War era.

Alan Brooke Turner, former British Cultural Attaché in Moscow between 1962 and 1965, recollected: “Looking back on these events, I would say that Britten performed a historic role, not only for the country of his birth but in the far wider cause of breaking down the barriers which divided West and East at that point in history…Any concert in Russia in which Slava Rostropovich was performing under the baton of Britten as conductor, a work which Britten had written for him (Cello Symphony)…was a historic occasion and triumph.”

The BSFO has been created by Jan Latham-Koenig, the British Artistic Director of the Novaya Opera – the city of Moscow’s leading opera house. Latham-Koenig is the first and only British conductor appointed to lead a Russian cultural organisation.

As Jan Latham-Koenig explains: “Russian composers’ fascination with English literature, and in particular Shakespeare, remained undimmed even from behind the Iron Curtain. Prokofiev was inspired to compose one of his most popular ballets - Romeo and Juliet - and Shostakovich created his finest film score for the legendary film, Hamlet, by Grigori Kozintsev. I am thrilled that we are launching this first British-Russian orchestra in the spirit of a friendship under unlikely circumstances – the language barrier, which Britten and Shostakovich contended with, was their smallest obstacle. Achieving the highest artistic standards with these talented musicians will contribute towards deepening the cultural relationship between these two great countries.”

The BSFO has been formed to mark the occasion of the 2019 Year of Music, a bilateral collaboration between the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation. As Benjamin Britten commented in an interview in 1963, “Russian and British people have a long existing friendship and sympathy, and you should not make judgements about English people only based on things they publish in our newspapers. We feel a great respect for Soviet art; Soviet artists and performances have become an integral part of our musical life. We would like you to know our art.”

A friendship that brought two polar opposite worlds together

Benjamin Britten and Dmitry Shostakovich first met at a concert by the Leningrad Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall in 1960, on a tour in which Mstislav (Slava) Rostropovich gave the UK premiere of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto.

The two had long admired each other's music: Britten’s Peter Grimes had taken inspiration from Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which he had first heard in 1935. As Britten would later write in 1963, “For years now your work & life have been an example to me – of courage, integrity & human sympathy.”

Though diplomatic tensions between their respective countries meant meetings between the two composers were difficult to come by, Britten and Shostakovich’s friendship would continue from afar with the steady exchange of scores and recordings through intermediaries. Chief among these was Rostropovich himself and his wife Galina Vishnevskaya, forming a tight-knit quartet of friends traversing physical boundaries. In 1961, Katerina Izmailova, Shostakovich’s revised version of Lady Macbeth, was performed at Covent Garden and Britten wrote to compliment his fellow composer:

“My dear Dmitri Shostakovich, our good friend Slava has been with us for 2 days here & will bring this note to you from me – to thank you most warmly for your wonderful letter. I was deeply sad not to be able to greet you with thousands of other English people at the performance of “Katerina”. You know how much I love this opera myself & rejoice that it has made so many friends here.”

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