“The great gates of Kiev”: A Cold War story

Jul 16, 2023
Black and white photo of a young musician in a long black dress. Classical music, opera and Italian culture. Hands on piano keys.

Europeans endured two world wars in the 20th Century. Surely they have no wish to begin the 21st Century with a third. 

Johann Sebastian Bach died in Leipzig in 1750. Two hundred years later, Leipzig, the musical capital of Germany, was behind the Iron Curtain.

The Berlin Airlift, the detonation of Russia’s first atomic bomb in September 1949, America’s production of the hydrogen bomb and the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 started the East-West rivalry that dominated world affairs for the next 40 years and now returns to haunt us in the Ukraine.

A brilliant diplomatic initiative on the Eastern side was the 1950 Bach Bicentennial Competition in Leipzig where pianist contestants could play anything they liked as long as their programmes included at least one of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, the foundation stone of musical composition.

Tatiana Nikolayeva, a 26-year-old graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, played all 48 and won first prize. On the judging panel was the world’s greatest living composer, Dimitri Shostakovich, who was inspired to emulate Bach.

Tatiana Nikolayeva recalled the time: “On his return home to Moscow from Leipzig, Shostakovich immediately began to compose his Preludes and Fugues. At his request I telephoned him every day and he asked me to come to him and listen to him play the piece he had just written.

“They are 24 masterpieces, each with its own internal world. They can and must be compared to Bach’s cycle. They are a new world in polyphony.”

In 1990 in London, Tatiana Nikolayeva recorded the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues for the Hyperion label. The three-disc set is one of my prized possessions. When I was still at school, she gave a concert in Perth where she played Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

The last “picture” or variation – ‘The Great Gates of Kiev” – closes with such massive chords that many a sturdy Steinway has needed surgery.

My disc of “Pictures” is a classic called “The Sofia Recital 1958” recorded live at a concert in the Bulgarian capital by Sviatoslav Richter before he played in America, where he was greeted like a rock star.

Sviatoslav Richter was born in the Ukraine. He did not enjoy the American crowds and preferred to play in dimly lit churches in France and Germany. His fans followed him around Europe, hoping to get to the church on time.

In my youth it was a rite of passage to read long Russian novels, especially Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I completed this assignment when I was a member of the Electrical Trades Union, working as a trades assistant at Dampier and we went on strike, giving me plenty of reading time.

While care-taking a wheatbelt farm I read Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” and loved its wild complexity.

It is a privilege of our civilisation through our symphony orchestras, libraries and ballet schools to share this wonderful cultural heritage.

Europeans endured two world wars in the 20th Century. Surely they have no wish to begin the 21st Century with a third.

We should be building bridges, not blowing up pipelines.

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