The Peace Concert at the Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin, August 1948.
All those people climbing on ruined buildings to see the concert are actually on top of two full-sized cathedrals and a huge classical concert building – very high up indeed. Nikitin did three encores of Kalinka, and was named as the first Mr Kalinka on that day. Note his relaxed stance – quite different from the stiff and formal stance of later Ensemble soloists in concert halls.
Nikitin clasps his hands almost in an attitude of prayer, opens his hands gently towards the audience, perhaps in a giving or compassionate gesture, before allowing them to fall naturally by his side. This subtle but moving communication with the audience tells us a lot about why Nikitin was so popular, and why it is Nikitin’s part in the performance that is remembered especially from that day.
THE 1948 PEACE CONCERT
In 1948 much of Berlin was still ruined after World War II, and the city was divided into four occupation zones, controlled by the USSR, France, the UK and the USA. This was before the Berlin Wall, and it was still possible to travel between zones. An American officer suggested a concert in the Gendarmenmarkt (in the Soviet zone at the time), and the French zone commander supported the suggestion. The musicians were to be provided by the USSR, and the Alexandrov Ensemble was chosen. A temporary stage was set up in the square, with flowers all along the front. 30,000 people came to stand and watch for three hours. In 1994, towards the end of his life, Boris Alexandrov said:
“The visit to Germany was unforgettable. It is dominant in the history of the ensemble. It was necessary to make a new creative leap – from wartime military music to postwar relaxing harmony. It was important, and the transition had to be managed on many fronts, including getting the Ensemble back into its original pre-war role, performing the classics and singing folk songs. Before the war the Ensemble had 200 professional singers; following the war it was down to 60.”
A previous tour to East Germany had been cancelled due to the sudden death of Alexander Alexandrov in 1946 in Potsdam, when in his bed was found an annotated copy of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, showing that A. Alexandrov had been preparing the final chorus for a performance. Now Boris, his son, was ready to follow his father’s plan. The 1948 peace concert was to consist of German opera extracts and Russian folk songs (Nightingales, Zemlyanka and Roads); and after an intervention by the tenor Victor Nikitin, some German folk songs were also included. The people joined in, singing Heidenröslein, and Nikitin sang Kalinka three times in a row. The concert was very successful, and very moving.