In the 1960s Britain was a little behind the curve when it came to avant-garde music. All the towering giants in the field seemed to be foreign: America had John Cage, Germany had Karlheinz Stockhausen, France had Pierre Boulez, Italy had Luciano Berio, Greece had Iannis Xenakis. By comparison, our contender, Peter Maxwell Davies, cut a somewhat slight figure.
A great deal, therefore, rested on the shoulders of the bright young hope Cornelius Cardew (1936-81), who had worked with Stockhausen in the late 1950s and who completed his first really major work Treatise in 1967. This was a long piece of graphic design that didn’t bother with conventional musical notation or with conveying any sense of what it was supposed to sound like, instead allowing complete freedom of interpretation to the performers. In other words, it was a masterpiece entirely characteristic of its era.
But one of the cultural trends as the 1970s dawned was a move in some (small) quarters from playful experimentalism to political commitment. You can see it in the shift of John Lennon from ‘Revolution 9’ to the sloganeering of ‘Woman Is the Nigger of the World’. And you can certainly see it in Cornelius Cardew.
He joined an obscure sect called the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist), who pursued the prevailing fashion for Maoism. And he stayed with them as they rebranded themselves the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), following their decision that maybe the future of socialism actually lay more in the direction of Enver Hoxha, the dictator of Albania.
As part of his conversion to Maoism, Cardew publicly repented of his avant-garde sins in a book titled Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, a theme he also explored in this talk. Putting away the reactionary indulgences of his youth, he resolved now to write songs that would stir the working class into revolutionary mood. Unfortunately he wasn’t as good a songwriter as he had been an avant-garde pianist, and the masses remained unmoved.
Cardew died in 1981, the victim of a hit-and-run driver who has never been apprehended. His early death inspired one of the most beautiful piano pieces of the century, Well, Well Cornelius by Howard Skempton, one of his collaborators in the good days.
At the end of a year that has seen the new leadership of the Labour Party having fun by citing Chairman Mao and Enver Hoxha, it seems appropriate to revisit the music that existed on the fringe of fringe politics back in the late 1970s, when Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were first starting their careers.
So this is Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Song for the British Working Class’ from 1979, with its stirring call to arms:
In the 1840s Marx and Engels on our shores
Organised and hammered out the objective laws propelling history
Marxist-Leninist science is the guiding star
Charting the course for the working class:
Incidentally, there are some who maintain that Cardew’s death was the work of MI5, seeking to eliminate a talented and inspiring figure in revolutionary politics. This seems to me implausible. I’m fond of Cardew, but he was surely a little obscure to be considered that much of a threat to the establishment. After all, the members of Henry Cow weren’t rubbed out.