The ‘Prom of peace’ – Rostropovich and Dvorak, 1968

Paul Gambaccini’s Radio 4 show ‘For One Night Only‘ is quite a rare thing: a radio show about (rather than playing) music that manages to avoid being joyless, self-indulgent and too long. Perhaps it helps that each episode is built around a specific historical event — usually, and in this case, a live concert. This helps to keep things focused and grounded, and there’s much less of the conceptual tangent-wandering you sometimes get with programmes about the arts.

The episode I’m talking about is this one from 2008. It looks back at the BBC Prom of 21st August 1968, when (Russian) Rostropovich and the (Soviet) USSR State Symphony Orchestra played (Czech) Antonin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, amid protests in London and calls for the concert to be cancelled. Why? Because, that day, Russian tanks had invaded Czechoslovakia.

I would have loved to see Rostropovich play at any time, but this really would have been something else. It is often said that music, sport, culture in general, can and should be kept separate from politics. This concert is a powerful counterexample. Shouting in the audience, protestors outside, tanks in Czechoslovakia, and on the stage a tearful Rostropovich playing the music in such a way as to make it ‘completely clear whose side he was on’.

The CD is available on BBC Legends, here, and now I’m going to buy it. But there’s a final, poetic sadness. On the recording that survives, the shouts of protest from some in the audience as the music begins have been removed. I’d take the original any day, sullied and tainted as it was by the low politics and human tragedies of its time. Just as live music should be.

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5 thoughts on “The ‘Prom of peace’ – Rostropovich and Dvorak, 1968”

    1. I was lucky enough to be at this concert in 1968 (still have the programmes for 21 and 22/8/68!) & seated near Rostropovich. It was a remarkable experience both musically & emotionally. Slava finished with a melancholic encore of a Bach Sarabande (not sure which) with tears running down his face. One concert I shall never forget and felt privileged to be there, politics aside, the music spoke volumes about the humanity of the orchestra and Slava’s deep felt sorrow at his countries actions. Wonderfully ironic that the Dvorak Concerto was programmed for that night! The following concert on 22nd by USSR SSO was also very moving with The Isle of the Dead, Shostakovich Violin concert #2 (Oistrakh) and Tchaikovsky symphony # 6. Another emotionall programme. By coincidence the Prom season’s programmes all had red outer covers! Great post about The Prom(s) of Peace.

  1. Taken me awhile to find this page, but I was there too. Had queued for some time, but a long way back and opted to go up in the gallery to be sure I could get in. Didn’t see but could hear the demonstration outside and then the boos, jeers and whistles as the orchestra came on. A long way from the stage but Rostropovich and the Orchestra’s emotions could be felt all round the hall. Still get a tingle thinking about it. Went the following evening too.

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