Friday, 23 November 2012

Beethoven and International Broadcasting

One of the highlights of this year's Ilkley Literature Festival was John Suchet discussing his new biography of Beethoven ( John Suchet is a journalist, news-reader, a presenter on Classic FM and acclaimed Beethoven scholar, having written six books about his favourite composer.

During his talk in Ilkley, John briefly discussed the ways that Beethoven had not only touched, but had saved people's lives. I am sure he is aware that the opening four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony match the morse code for the letter 'V'. So it is understandable that, in the final days of World War Two, British radio broadcasts used these musical notes to reassure those in Europe living under Nazi occupation that victory was at hand, and members of the resistance movement began to paint the letter 'V' on walls throughout France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Beethoven was a major contributor in the psychological war.

In August 1991, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, was the victim of a brief and unsuccessful coup d'etat (the August Putsch or August Coup). The leaders of this putsch were hardline members of the Communist Party who opposed Gorbachev's programme of reform and liberalisation (Perestroika and Glasnost, two buzzwords that became familiar in the late 1980s). The coup collapsed after only two days and Gorbachev returned to the government.

As a shortwave radio fanatic and student of politics I monitored Radio Moscow World Service (RMWS) throughout the coup. In those days the station was not difficult to find: RMWS broadcast on all shortwave bandwidths and the number of frequencies it used outnumbered any other radio station. The station's identification which sounded before the news at the top of the hour was very familiar: the chimes of the Kremlin, followed by Midnight in Moscow and an announcer with a pseudo-American announcer reminding us that we were listening to Radio Moscow World Service.

(This is a RMWS programme schedule. I actually received on of these in return for sending them a reception report)

On 19 August 1991, the tone and content of programming changed, and broadcasts contained far less news and more silences and music. One piece of music that the station repeated over and over convinced me that RMWS was broadcasting a signal to its listeners - the coup would not succeed. That piece of music was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with, in its opening bars, the distinctive morse code 'V' for victory. This was not the only signal. Those of us who obsessed about international radio broadcasting knew intimately the idiosyncrasies of each station. One unique characteristic of RMWS was that it only played music written by Russian composers, yet here it was at this dramatic and historic time playing the most famous work written by a German.

Of course it may all have been coincidental, the imaginings of a young mind convinced that shortwave radio broadcasts could and did play an important role in politics and international affairs (I was just starting my PhD research on this very topic). Yet I like to think that Radio Moscow World Service had made a conscious and strategic decision on that day - to use its power as a broadcaster to bypass the coup leaders and send a message to its listeners around the world: the coup will not succeed; everything is ok, and in the end it was - the putsch was defeated by popular resistance led by future Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, and by the disarray among the conspirators themselves. I also like to think that Beethoven played a small and significant role in the end of the coup and in the the dissolution of the Soviet Union as 1991 came to an end.     

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