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Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)

Cornelius Cardew His Life and Work

Talk given prior to the concert of the later works of Cornelius Cardew at the Purcell Room. November 5, 1986

First Published: 1986.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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Editor’s Note: The text of this pre-concert talk, given prior to the concert “Cornelius Cardew: The Later Works” at the Purcell Room, November 5, 1986, has been edited for publication by Progressive Cultural Association.

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FIVE years have passed since the death of Cornelius Cardew, who would have been 50 this year. At the time of his death, his accomplishments as a musician and composer were already widely recognised not only in Britain but internationally. He was admired and respected both for his undoubted musical talents and as a Marxist-Leninist and fighter for the people’s cause, who sought to express his commitment in his music, and to put his music and his talents in the service of the people and their struggles against exploitation and oppression, for national and social liberation and for a better world.

After five years it is possible to see yet more clearly the significance of the trail which he blazed and the path which he opened up for progressive musicians and artists.

Cornelius Cardew’s output as a composer is divided into two main periods, separated by the watershed of his coming into contact with Marxism-Leninism and the genuine Marxist-Leninist forces in Britain. The first period (the late 1950s and the 1960s) can conveniently be described as avant-garde. The second (the 1970s and the 1980s until his death) is the period when he strove to apply the socialist realist method in his music, music which is integral to the people’s lives and aspirations, not detached from them, music which is bound up with and seeks to advance all the great forward movements in society; this is the role which all the great composers and artists of the past have taken up, as with the pinnacles of ancient Greek art, the plays of Shakespeare at the time of the Renaissance, the music of Beethoven. In this latter period, he rejected and repudiated the music and philosophy of the first period.

In the 1960s, like all progressive artists of the time in Britain, Cornelius Cardew had been prey to various decadent, modernist diversions, artistic and political, calling themselves “alternative cultures” or masquerading as progressive, particularly those emanating from the US. To his great credit, having taken them up and examined them with an honest attitude he then rejected them.

At the start of his career in he late 1950s as a questing young composer, and throughout the 1960s, Cornelius Cardew took up one by one what seemed at the time to him and other young musicians to be the most “advanced” and “revolutionary” directions in music. Very early on, he rejected serialism with its formalistic, dehumanising procedures, and became attracted to the American avant-garde of John Cage and his followers, with their indeterminate procedures. At this time, this seemed to Cornelius Cardew and other young composers with progressive sentiment to represent a “liberation” from the mechanics of serialism and to be more “human” in that it supposedly liberated the performer, supposedly allowing his consciousness a greater role, giving free rein to his spontaneity, and so on. But it is entirely false to say that on the one hand the European serialist school of Stockhausen (with its concurrent trend of medieval mysticism) is “reactionary”, and on the other hand the American indeterminacy of Cage (which had its own facet of mysticism in Zen, for example) is “progressive”.

This Cornelius Cardew himself later recognised. He wrote of Stockhausen’s piece “Refrain” in “Stockhausen Serves Imperialism”, a book which collects some of the articles Cornelius Cardew wrote in the early 1970s, that the score was a “gimmick”, “a typical piece of Darmstadt thinking”, in which the music is “obliged to accommodate itself to a crude piece of mobile two-dimensional design”. But he was also critical of the music of Cage, calling it “an oppressive chaos”, “…characteristic of the capitalist system in decay (a riot of greed and exploitation)”. He writes that if the music of Cage is properly appreciated, “it will become identified with everything we are fighting against”, and talks of the growth of “corrupt ideology” in Cage.

Cornelius Cardew in the ’60s period was attempting to use the indeterminacy of his scores such as “Octet for Jasper Johns” and “Treatise” as a “stimulation” for the performer. But he himself came to realise how meaningless was this exercise, severing, as it did, almost every connection of the composer with the sounds of performance and eliminating any relationship to a musical tradition to which a performer can relate. Cornelius Cardew referred to his score “Treatise” as an example of a “disease of notation” and himself said of the work that it is the product of a composer who is not in a position to make music. It is typical of the fragmentation shown by the products of the avant-garde that the essential components of music as a social art – the interaction of composer, performer and audience – should have been separated and fragmented. As he said, the score of “Treatise” is an obstacle between musicians and audience, and that musical graphics (such as “Treatise”) are a substitute for composition.

The work ̶o;The Great Learning” is the magnum opus of Cornelius Cardew’s avant-garde period, begun in 1968 and lasting in a full performance of the work some nine hours, scored for organ and a large body of trained and untrained performers. It uses a text of Confucius, whom Cornelius Cardew denounced in his articles of the 1970s as thoroughly reactionary, extolling the virtues of contemplation, and he used it in a translation by Ezra Pound, who – as the composer says – twisted the meaning to suit his own ends, the ends of fascism. Cornelius Cardew says, “As a politically backward composer wrapped up in the abstractions of the avant-garde, I was not concerned about Pound’s politics and it mattered little to me that his mystical interpretation contradicted the findings of most scholars.” His succinct summary of “The Great Learning” is that it is a piece of “inflated rubbish”.

The modernist and avant-garde artistic creation of this century shows a process of degeneration and has been on every front a pale shadow of the art of the past. As Cornelius Cardew colourfully put it, “By comparison with the effectiveness, wholesomeness, emotion, satisfaction, delight, inspiration and stimulus that we... derive from Beethoven, Brahms and the rest, modern music (with very few exceptions) is footling, unwholesome, sensational, frustrating, offensive and depressing.” The theories which buttress this creation are characterised by poverty of thought, pseudo-theories and fragmentation. The concepts which purport to explain it are put forward not to clarify but to obscure. Cornelius Cardew came to realise that the rebellion, the morality, the educative and stimulative qualities he had sought in the avant-garde compositions and which were claimed for them were as applied to these works merely labels for what was the opposite, for what was essentially reactionary and decadent, and hence running completely counter to his ideals and aspirations.

With profound courage and strength of character, Cornelius Cardew examined the various trends of the avant-garde, having taken them up in his own’ work, from the point of view of a practitioner, and decisively and vehemently rejected them. Towards the end of the sixties he had increasingly tried to find some wider social context for his music than the specialist “new music” circles, joining the group AMM originally comprised of jazz musicians, and then founding the Scratch Orchestra, with its participants from many walks of life, its Constitution, its democratic ideals and its determination to take its music to ordinary people – to the working people in various regions of Britain, to youth clubs, and so on. But this attempt foundered as it was bound to do, rooted as the Scratch Orchestra was in subjectivism, anarchism and confusion, with its music still unable to escape from the formalism of the avant-garde and its incomprehensibility.

Cornelius Cardew’s search for a musical expression and language that satisfied his aspirations and his sentiment began to reach a crisis point, as it did for a number of the musicians involved, with the Scratch Orchestra, which had the aspirations to be democratic, for the people, but in which, in fact, all the most degenerate trends of bourgeois art ran riot. It represented an extreme extension of retrogressive trends within modern art: the breaking down of distinctions between beauty and ugliness, the breaking down of the distinction between art and non-art, and of primitivism, anarchy and amateurishness.

The way forward for which Cornelius Cardew had been searching he found on coming into contact with Marxism Leninism and the genuine Marxist-Leninists in Britain, and with great courage he made a decisive break with his music and musical activities of the 1960s, a decisive break with the avant-garde. In 1972 he wrote two polemical articles against two of the leaders of the avant-garde, Stockhausen and Cage, which fiercely attacked and exposed the reactionary ideology behind their work. These became the core of the book “Stockhausen Serves Imperialism” in which he also subjects his own avant-garde work to the same criticism. In an introduction to the Piano Album of the early seventies he said: “I have discontinued composing music in an avant-garde idiom for a number of reasons: the exclusiveness of the avant-garde, its fragmentation, its indifference to the real situation in the world today, its individualistic outlook.”.

The works of the later period are not esoteric, for the few. Rather they are infused with a profound humanism, the same humanism from which his political outlook is also fashioned in this period. It is an outlook which grapples with the aspirations of man for a world free from fascism and war, a world free from the oppression of man by man, an outlook which is partisan towards the working class and which sides with the people in their struggles and in turn links itself with and serves these struggles.

The outlook which finds expression in Cornelius Cardew’s music before the 1970s was not this humanist outlook, it did not uphold the truths and values that humanism has upheld throughout the ages. To say this is not to deny that he had far reaching humanist aspirations and sentiment, nor to deny his great talent and sincerity. On the contrary, it is clear that throughout the 1960s he was to an ever-greater extent striving to link his art with the people. But he was always groping in the dark.

What then is the humanist outlook which Cornelius Cardew espoused in the 1970s?

Humanism is an outlook to which certain truths and values are common through different stages of history, though always having the character of its time and the social class which espouses it.

Humanism is an outlook which puts man at the centre of things, the pivot of existence, and not anything else – the supernatural for example. It is an outlook in which man’s rights are central as opposed to the acquiescence in his oppression, in which are upheld reason and truth as opposed to mystification, obscurantism and falsification, man’s striving to control his life, his nature and his destiny above any idea that man is passive and must submit to the manipulation by forces beyond his control. These are the crucial values which throughout the ages humanism has upheld; they are the values which the greatest of the ancient Greek artists and thinkers put forward, they are the values which were reaffirmed and developed during the Renaissance at the time when feudalism was in the process of disintegration and capitalism was emerging as the prevailing social system.

Today, history has moved on three centuries and more from the time of the Renaissance. The present era is one where the working class, with the growth of modern large-scale, complex industrial production, has emerged as the central force, capable of running society. It is not its task to break feudal bondage and establish manufacture, but to do away with the capitalist mode and relations of production with its overall anarchy and crisis which is a block to the development of society, and establish a society which the people, led by the working class, run collectively, for which the times so cry out, rather than the many being ruled for the profit of the few. To uphold reason now, when Marx and Engels have worked out the scientific theory which explains the development of human history and gives a guide as to how the working people can overcome oppression, is to take up this theory and contribute to removing the blocks holding back the development of society. For mankind to control its destiny is for the millions of working and oppressed people to come together to take their destiny in their own hands and decide their own future, as history has proved can be done as in the Soviet Union of Lenin and Stalin, in socialist Albania today, and in numerous national liberation struggles throughout the world. Humanism today upholds these scientific truths about society.

The humanist philosophy, then, which increasingly underlies the outlook of Cornelius Cardew and his works in the decade of the 1970s, affirms the highest values which mankind has always upheld, but developed according to the era and conditions of the twentieth century. In short, it is socialist humanism which is the outlook of his later works, whereas his earlier works are not humanist at all.

The avant-garde works of Cornelius Cardew during the 1960s have nothing to do with humanism. He himself criticised Cage and his own music for their belittling of the performer and of humanity. He said of Cage’s music that it degrades the talented and intelligent people who participate in it. He writes of paragraph I of his own work “The Great Learning” that its effect is to create “a mystical awe at the grandeur of the universe – the human element in the piece is of a tameness that would have warmed old Confucius’ reactionary heart”. Of paragraph 2 of the same work, which uses a large body of drums, he writes that “nature, the stormy racket of the competing drums, again holds sway over the human element”.

In opposition to the avant-garde, he took up in the 1970s the socialist realist method of composition, the outlook of which truthfully reflects the reality of life and society, is part of it, and serves the struggles of the people, is partisan for the working class. Today, Cornelius Cardew realised, it can be only this method of art production in which the high principles of art can be fully realised.

He increasingly threw himself into the thick of the struggles of the working class and people, he worked with and joined the genuine Marxist-Leninists who were working to re-establish the Marxist-Leninist Party in Britain, culminating in the founding of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) in 1979. He began to work within the Progressive Cultural Association, of which he became Secretary and leading figure, uniting democratic and progressive musicians and artists in the development of a new, progressive and popular culture. Once he allied himself with the collective in this way, rejected the sterile individualism of the avant-garde and took up instead socialist humanism and the socialist realist method, opposing both blatant commercialism and ivory-tower detachment from the people, his work showed a creative and imaginative flowering, became partisan for the working class, was based on and served the anti-imperialist and democratic struggles of the people, their struggles for national and social liberation, and increasingly developed a popular character, based on national traditions and taking up the progressive heritage of previous times and of other countries, while at the same time it was guided by science, by Marxism-Leninism, the Marxist-Leninist Party and the international Communist Movement.

At first, this development was inhibited to some extent by Maoism with its eclecticism, its rejection of progressive cultural heritage and the traditions of the people, and its sloganeering, philistine aesthetic. Although this prevented him for a time from fully applying the socialist-realist method, at the same time he was still true to those principles in his music. With the exposure of Maoism as being not Marxist at all, his work, which had never departed in this period from linking itself with the peoples’ struggles and using material from traditional culture, as with “Croppy Boy” and “Father Murphy” for example, showed a further advance. These earlier piano pieces, based on old revolutionary Irish songs, mark the beginning of an increasingly important and significant aspect of Cornelius Cardew’s musical development: his espousal of the national and revolutionary cultural traditions of the people. He was very active politically in the cause of Irish freedom, reunification and independence and developed a great love for Irish music. The two arrangements of Irish rebel songs from the 1798 rebellion are early manifestations of this deep involvement in the rich heritage of the people’s songs of struggle.

The wide range of his music during the 1970s to his death is notable. He wrote songs for all of the struggles of the working people: against capitalist exploitation, against fascism and imperialist war, songs which are genuinely popular and accessible. He wrote solo instrumental pieces written for the skills and virtuosity of the performers, such as “The Worker’s Song”. “Boolavogue”, a piece for two pianos, is based on Irish and British songs of the people’s struggles, fused with the forms and textures of the classical tradition. And he wrote a number of highly developed elaborate solo piano works in this tradition, his final work being the Piano Variations on “We Sing for the Future”. He was constantly questing for new areas of expression and would adapt existing works and songs to different instrumental combinations, the “Thaelmann Sonata” for violin, and marimba and xylophone, being one of these, and “Vietnam’s Victory”, for brass ensemble, another.

Cornelius Cardew wrote music linked to the needs and the events of the time, specific demonstrations, world events, and so on. For example, “Vietnam’s Victory” celebrates the liberation of Vietnam from US domination. He wrote music integrated with definite events and struggles, both national and international, songs that would serve these struggles, such as the “Ford Workers’ Song”, “Smash the Social Contract!” and “Four Principles on Ireland”. The four principles are: 1. Ireland belongs to the Irish people; 2. The Irish people are one people; 3. The Irish can solve all their national problems free from interference; 4. A nation oppressing another nation can’t itself be free.

A significant feature of the music of this period is the collective nature of its production, both in his work within PCA, and in international collaborative work of PCA. For example, he energetically participated, with Progressive Cultural Association, in a number of tours of Canada, taking part in the International Youth Concerts of 1979 and the International Sports and Cultural Festival of 1981, events which took place under the leadership of the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist). This collaboration resulted in such songs as “Workers of Ontario”, “We Sing for the Future” and “There Is Only One Lie”, for all of which he wrote the music.

The works of this period, notably “Boolavogue” for two pianos, and “We Sing for the Future” for solo piano, show great power and conviction in applying the socialist realist method. Cornelius Cardew wrote of “We Sing for the Future” that it “is a composition based on a song. The song is for youth who face bleak prospects in a world dominated by imperialism, and whose aspirations can only be realised through the victory of revolution and socialism. In the framework of a solo piano piece ...something of this great struggle is conveyed. The music is not programmatic, but relies on the fact that music has meaning and can be understood quite straightforwardly as part of the fabric of what is going on in the world.”

At the same time, he had not yet tackled large-scale works such as symphonies or operas, and it is a great tragedy that he was killed just when he was reaching a new stage of consciousness and understanding of the tasks and problems confronting a revolutionary artist, an artist of the people, and his works were on the threshold of a further development in this direction.

Nevertheless, the later works of Cornelius Cardew show a great range and diversity. He was increasingly conscious of the need to develop a distinctive voice as a composer within a popular and progressive British musical tradition, although he had .taken only initial steps in developing the different genres. There are popular British traditions of brass playing and choral singing; “Vietnam’s Victory” represents the former and ”There Is Only One Lie” the latter. He was also taking up folk music and songs of struggle of the British people in his compositions; “The Worker’s Song” is an example, as is the last movement of “Boolavogue” which is skilfully based on “The Blackleg Miner”. At the same time, he was studying and applying the technical means of expression of the heritage of classical music with its advanced, extended musical forms, particularly – at the time of his death –English composers of the Renaissance, whose influence can be seen in both the piano works “Boolavogue” and “We Sing for the Future”. As he said of “Boolavogue”, its movements represent “attempts at handling folk material in classical terms; in particular they give expression to the passion and drive of the working people’s struggle against the barbarity of national oppression and wage slavery.”

Cornelius Cardew was always an innovative composer with a questing spirit, always standing at the forefront of musical development, with great strength of character. His great merit as a composer is that, guided and moulded by the party, the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), of which he was a founder member and, at the time of his death, a member of its Central Committee, he achieved a breakthrough in rejecting what was reactionary, seeing the necessity of applying the socialist realist method and breaking new ground in showing the path to be followed in producing new and progressive music. His untimely death cut short a further significant development in this direction. His achievements and the principles for which he stood live on and have had and continue to have a profound influence on many musicians and artists, inspiring many also to take up the path which he took, both in Britain and internationally.