Marxist Ideology and the Forging of an Ensemble

The Pervyi Simfonicheskii Ansambl (First Symphonic Ensemble) was founded in the Soviet Union in July 1921. In accordance with Marxist ideology, it had no conductor: decisions on interpretation being made by a number of elected committees.

At their first big gig in Moscow, Otto Klemperer was invited to conduct. As the concerto rang out, Klemperer put his baton down on the floor and joined the audience, and the ensemble finished without him. The Persimfans demonstrated that, in a proletarian state orchestra, musicians do not need a musical dictator.

“It isn’t that we’re opposed to conductors,” the group’s founder, violinist Lev Zeitlin, said, “just bad conductors.” But Zeitlin and company, in keeping with the egalitarian philosophy of Karl Marx, eschewed all men with batons, with the occasional exception of invited guests like Klemperer.

The Persimfans fared admirably without a leader, although its successes came only after loads of extra rehearsals and conferences during which every performer had to become familiar with the entire score. Works by Haydn, Mozart, and the like were simple enough to present few problems. But the group was challenged severely by the excesses of the Romantics and the complexities of 20th-century composition.

Within the ensemble, a smaller committee of musicians was elected to meet regularly to decide on such apparent intangibles as volume, dynamics, tempo, and style of specific pieces. Then, at rehearsals, one of the committee members would sit in the balcony to listen and report back.

Onstage, the group played in a circle so that each musician was visible to all the other musicians. “The utmost concentration and attention is demanded of each player, all of whom are fully conscious of their responsibility in that magic circle,” the French pianist Henri Gil-Marchex, who performed with the Persimfans, wrote. “Each member of the orchestra has his own important part to play, and glances, raising of the brow, and slight motions of the shoulders… are done by each instrumentalist, but so discreetly that the listener…seldom notices it.”

In January 1927, Sergei Prokofiev appeared with the Persimfans to play on his Piano Concerto No. 3. He remarked “The conductorless orchestra coped splendidly.. and accompanied soloists as competently as any conducted orchestra…Their main difficulty lay in changing tempo, for here the whole ensemble had to feel the music in exactly the same way. On the other hand, the difficult passages were easily overcome, for each individual musician felt himself a soloist and played with perfect precision.”

The Persimfans were very famous outside the USSR throughout the 1920s and inspired imitators in Paris, Berlin, and New York. In 1927 they were named an ‘Honored Collective’ by the Soviet government. But sadly dissension within the ensemble – coupled with a relaxation of the state-held view that guidance and leadership by a trained individual are always ideologically offensive – proved the group’s undoing. The Persimfans disbanded in 1932.

Similar ensembles, such as the Orpheus Ensemble based in New York City, have had more success, although decisions are likely to be deferred to some sense of leadership within the ensemble (for example, the principal wind and string players). Most others have returned to the tradition of a principal player, usually the “1st violinist” , being the artistic director and running rehearsals (such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra).

In Communist R&B a certain dignity of labour is required, to provide each role that makes up the whole. Lyrics are not written by committee but instead as a result of ideological debate. For example – Situationism has proved a thorny subject for Nylons, Brentford and Baby-Face, but the common good always wins out. There are certain traditions from Rhythm & Blues which can be used and usurped, such as chordal modality and the dichotomal spirit of rebellion and spirit of gospel which makes the methods perfect for the use of Socialist ideals.

Thee Faction believe pop music can be achieved through peaceful committee. As can Government.