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Volume 46 Number 24, December 10, 2016 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Cornelius Cardew, 1936-1981

Outstanding Musician, Composer and Modern Communist

Cornelius Cardew lost his life on December 13, 1981. This was at the beginning of the decade of the 1980s, in which the world went through a turning point. The decade ended with the revolutionary movement, viewed on a global scale, going into retreat, while no force, whether in the revolutionary movement itself or elsewhere, could or would be able to act in the old way. Those who tried to act in the old way got stuck in the past, while those that gave up the revolutionary struggle themselves in response either became irrelevant or a block to contributing to a way out of the imperialist crisis or finding the alternative to the status quo.

RCPB(ML) said in 1981, in paying tribute to the life and work of Cornelius, that at the time of his tragic death he was at the point of a new flowering in his compositional career. We understood at the time something of what that meant in terms of Cornelius the composer, the musician. He had completed the work for two pianos, called "Boolavogue" after the Irish rebel song, though this is only the theme of the first of its three movements. The third is based on the English song, "The Blackleg Miner". There is the work for solo violin, "The Worker's Song", which combines the melodies of Cardew's "The Founding of the Party" with that of the title song itself ("I am a worker and I say it with pride"). And his final solo piano work, "We Sing for the Future", a substantial one-movement piece using the tunes of the verse and chorus of the revolutionary song for which Cardew himself had composed the music.

Thus the flowering one could have expected would have included orchestral works (there are some sketches) - for instance, symphonies or substantial chamber music and further developed songs. In other words, works expected of a mainstream important composer at the van of their art.

Of course, one could not second-guess the compositions a person of Cornelius' talents would have written. But looking back from the standpoint of the present, and recognising that Cardew himself was always a pathfinder, blazing a trail in solving musical problems in working out what music was required to be in step with the times, one can draw some conclusions. Cornelius Cardew's standpoint was that of modern communism, and was at one with the progressive movements of the working class and people of the times. He would not have departed from this standpoint. It is a standpoint that made Cornelius a revolutionary, both in terms of politics and in terms of culture. He put all his talents in the service of this outlook, and was led by it.

As the paper presented in 1996 by Hardial Bains [i], founder and the then leader of the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist), says of the period 1978-1981: "It was ... a matter of producing that culture which would assist the movement of the working class for emancipation. Forms of culture with proletarian partisanship and of revolutionary character with profound proletarian ideological content were the special product of this work." That was the collective cultural work of that period. But what was required to advance the cultural work from 1981 onward, which Cornelius was involved in making preparations for, but tragically never lived to see?

Hardial Bains goes on to say: "[Cornelius] had fully dedicated himself, as the responsibility assigned to him by the collective, to resist such destruction of culture [by imperialism and world reaction], whether in its national form or in its class content which amounts to the same thing under these circumstances. One of the features of this work was the creation of Party culture. This work had assumed a certain level of excellence and was ready to be professionalised. The stage was set in 1981-82 to produce broad, revolutionary, mass cultural forms professionally. It was at this precise point that we lost Cornelius Cardew."

Hardial Bains further elaborates: "The work from this period 1978-81 continued assuming the form of the movement for enlightenment. The success of this work created the conditions for the creation of new culture in various forms, one of which assumed journalistic and other political literary forms. We were able to develop ideological work and social forms as an integral part of this work in the sphere of culture."

Paper delivered by Hardial Bains, National Leader of the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist), December 21, 1996

What of the time that paper was given in 1996? Hardial Bains says: "Profound revolutionary culture produced professionally is one of the greatest demands of the present time. As we approach the end of the twentieth century and the second millennium and inaugurate the twenty-first century and the third millennium, the need for broad, revolutionary, mass culture is being now more acutely felt than ever before." He emphasises: "The work at the present time is concerned with the need to create modern music and other forms of culture in a period characterised by the retreat of revolution. This is a question of considering what is necessary to be created which will assist in opening the door to progress in these conditions. It cannot be a variation of the old. Such a music, literature and art has to be genuinely popular, consistent with the needs of the modern productive force, the working class."

Looking to the future, Hardial Bains says: "A broad movement is needed, an integral part of the proletarian movement for emancipation, a movement in which applying profound knowledge, in many ways encyclopaedic, becomes the order of the day. Far from rejecting the entire field of aesthetics and morality as is promoted among the arts, excellence in the professions, the quest for serving the popular masses and seeking their approval, such things as these which have long been held by the high road of civilisation in the greatest regard, must be brought forth."

Five years ago, when we marked Cornelius' 75th anniversary of his birth and the 30th of his death, Sandra L. Smith, the present national leader of the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist), wrote [iii]: "On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Cornelius' birth, the significance of his contribution is being appreciated anew by not only the generation of musicians, artists and political activists who were part of the movement to break new ground in the 1960s and 1970s, but also today's generation of musicians and political activists. Together they have inherited Cornelius' greatest legacy of keeping in step with the requirements of the times in a manner that accepts no dogmatic rendering of reality or limitations on the human spirit and striving to contribute to the creation of a new world of socialised humanity."

Cornelius at the concert in London, Youth Against Racism Fascism and War! - December 5 1981

This is even more true today. The Cornelius Cardew Concerts Trust, writing to introduce the concert of new music inspired by Cornelius' enduring legacy in October this year, said: "He was always a pathfinder, and it is well known that Cornelius, as well as being an outstanding musician and composer, became a leading political figure and modern communist. He was a champion of enlightenment and progress in the political, social and cultural fields, his life, ideas and music forming an integral whole." The introduction continued: "Perhaps it is not always recognised that Cornelius' striving to contribute to the creation of a new world of socialised humanity with his music was inseparably linked with his immersing himself in this struggle for the progress of society. This he did as one with ordinary people, who make history by performing extraordinary deeds."

In this respect is Cardew a role model for all composers and cultural workers who have the desire to contribute to this broadening of the field where culture furthers the movement for social progress and for the alternative. It is not a question of taking the path of self-fulfilment, of deciding what one finds interesting and that is that, or of gaining qualifications on the basis of expressing individuality. It is rather a question of deciding how to contribute to the affirmation of human beings and their worth, how to embody in one's contributions the collective expression of the emotions of the mass of human beings and their concerns, including for the future of society, how to speak to and on behalf of this audience.

There is an urgent need in the face of the anarchy and violence which the powers-that-be are unleashing on the people for composers, musicians and other cultural workers to place their work in the context of the movement for enlightenment and contribute to the movements of the people for their emancipation and empowerment. There is no more worthwhile and satisfying path!

[i] Hardial Bains, "The Question Is Really One of Word and Deed", paper presented at the meeting held at Marx House, London, "In Commemoration of Cornelius Cardew, 1936-1981" on December 21, 1996, published by the Progressive Cultural Association, London, 1997

[ii] Sandra L Smith, "Cornelius Cardew - Outstanding Musician, Composer, Communist", The Marxist-Leninist Daily, December 13, 2011,


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