May 7, 1936 - December 13, 1981
December 13 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Cornelius Cardew, who was born 75 years ago on May 7, 1936. Cornelius was an outstanding member of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) and Secretary of the Progressive Cultural Association (PCA). He died tragically in a hit-and-run accident in 1981.
Many of us in the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) had the good fortune to work closely with Cornelius under the leadership of Comrade Hardial Bains when the Canadian Cultural Workers' Committee (CCWC) and the PCA engaged in joint work on the cultural front. On December 21, 1996, on the fifteenth anniversary of Cornelius' death, Comrade Bains delivered an important paper at a symposium held at the Marx Memorial Library in London, England by the PCA. The paper was subsequently published in a pamphlet under the title The Question is Really One of Word and Deed. In that presentation, Comrade Bains summed up the significance of the contribution Cornelius, a renowned musician and composer in his own right, made to the development of the movement to open society's path to progress at that time. Comrade Bains pointed out:
"One of the greatest qualities of Cornelius was that he worked as part of the collective. Being already a well-known personality in the field of music, a celebrated person from his younger days, there is a tendency to forget about the work of the collective and attribute all its achievements to Cornelius Cardew. Cornelius did not play that kind of role. It was his decision to join the collective that was the important and decisive step. This work in the sphere of culture had a history of some fifteen years before Cornelius joined it. It has also a history of some seventeen years since he joined. In fact, there was no such work during this period which can be called the 'work of Cornelius' nor is this its hallmark since. It was not Cornelius Cardew as such who gave rise to important developments. The entire work was that of the collective in which Cornelius made his contribution like everyone else. He did so not as the leader or inspirer of such a collective but as a person who was led and inspired by such a collective. It can be said that this quality of his working under the inspiration, the leadership of the collective, was his greatest quality and virtue. It is this quality which made him dear to everyone with whom he came in contact. It is precisely this virtue which enabled him to make his own contribution. Cornelius minus this virtue would remain a renowned composer and a personality to be interpreted by every Tom, Dick and Harry in a manner so as to please their own fancies. Cornelius with this virtue was the potential giant he was in this field. Alas, this potential was nowhere near exhausted by the time of his most untimely demise. His early death robbed him of the opportunity to develop his full potential. His keenness in work, his modesty, his convictions and dedication to the cause of revolution and socialism all stem from this virtue of working under the leadership of the collective. It can be said that he acquired this virtue as a result of his involvement in the proletarian movement for emancipation."
Concluding his presentation, Comrade Bains added:
Cornelius Cardew alongside the Founder and Leader of CPC(M-L) Hardial Bains during the Internationalist Youth Concert and Variety Show which toured
Canada in 1979.
"Cornelius Cardew will be remembered as a personality who was able to rise above the trivial, the narrow and the profane. He joined the collective and the collective work in which he found the greatest dignity and greatest satisfaction. He himself was a pathfinder, one who arrived at some important conclusions in his early life, especially the one in which he placed the musician and the performer right in the midst of the struggles of the masses for their rights. He joined work by placing his entire body and soul into it. In more ways than one, he lived one life, the life of a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary. Composing music, participating in the PCA/CCWC collective, was one of the duties he took up and executed honourably. This was not all that Cornelius did. He had other duties, the most important of which was his membership on the Central Committee of the Communist Party. An accomplished musician on the Central Committee of a Communist Party?! Yes, because he was an accomplished communist, a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary, a man dedicated to the victory of the proletarian movement for emancipation in the first place. He was all those things which the prevailing wisdom demands that an accomplished musician, a celebrated composer ought not be. Besides, he played the second fiddle to the leadership which he followed with utmost devotion and loyalty. He was so fortunate in accomplishing so much in life until the anarchy and violence of the society he worked so hard to transform through revolution cut his life short.
"Our Comrade Cornelius Cardew will always be remembered as the militant revolutionary Marxist-Leninist he was. All the attributes, his skills and abilities were in the service of the proletarian movement for emancipation. He is a worthy role model for all who wish to make their contribution, a person who found the way forward."
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 by 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 socialized humanity.
In this vein, London's Morley College, an adult education college, where Cornelius tutored from 1968-73, held a festival of his music, together with a weekend conference. Inaugurating these events, the Principal of the College highlighted Cornelius' bravery as one of his defining characteristics. The opening speech of the symposium and other presentations were made by colleagues of Cornelius who worked with him and elaborated on different aspects of his life and work, as well as young people who have taken up the study of his work. A session was held on "The Morley Experimental Music Class 1968-73: Recollections and Legacy" where Michael Chant, Carole Finer, Michael Graubart, Keith Rowe and Hugh Shrapnel brought out the significance of that experience. The film on Cornelius Cardew, "The Content of Our Song" by independent film-maker Stuart Monro, was also shown on the occasion.
A week prior to the symposium, the Morley Chamber Orchestra performed a concert where the amateur musicians played some of Cornelius' early works, amongst other pieces. During the symposium, young professional pianist Kerry Yong analyzed the musical significance of the piano solo "We Sing for the Future" by Cornelius and also spoke of his profound appreciation of the music.
This program was one of several held or to be held this year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the birth of Cornelius Cardew. This includes a performance of his music on December 17 at Conway Hall in central London, which promises to be stunning.
CPC(M-L) sent a bouquet of red carnations to be placed on Cornelius' grave today with the message: "With our deepest social love and respect for your indelible contribution, Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist)."
* Sandra L. Smith is the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist).