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Impresario in Cold Wartime: Nicolas Nabokov’s Music Festivals, 1951-1961

Colloquium Musicology
dr. Harm Langenkamp

Thursday 19 May, 15:30-17:00
Nieuwe Doelenstraat 16, room 3.01

Around 1950, when the members of the anti-Nazi alliance found themselves locked into a political and ideological stalemate that none of them could afford to escalate into another ‘hot’ war, the Truman administration found itself facing a challenge for which it was ill-prepared: stemming the seemingly irreversible success of Moscow’s overtures to nonaligned intelligentsias the world over. Part of Washington’s answer was the facilitation of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), a global coalition of men and women of arts, letters, and science that took it upon itself to counteract Soviet propaganda by promoting the value of freedom. Against all expectations, the post of the CCF’s secretary-general went to Nicolas Nabokov, an outspoken émigré composer of prominent Russian descent with a zest for anti-Stalinist rhetoric and politics. In this capacity, Nabokov organized a number of large-scale festivals and conferences which convened musicians, composers, music critics and (ethno)musicologists on an agenda of common interests and concerns.

This lecture assesses the strategies, ambitions, successes, and failures of Nabokov’s musical enterprises, in particular the 1961 East-West Music Encounter in Tokyo. Admirable for all the adversities Nabokov had overcome, at the height of the Vietnam War his projects were compromised by revelations about the CCF’s secret benefactor: the Central Intelligence Agency. For all the questions these revelations raise about the notions of cultural autonomy and apolitical cosmopolitanism that informed the CCF’s politics, this paper resists quick and easy condemnation, suggesting that the embrace of these notions as well as the resort to secrecy was at the time of the CCF’s foundation (June 1950) the only strategy through which a cultural counteroffensive of a serious scale could be mounted.