A democratic symphony orchestra, with no conductor

    Persimfans is a curious name, but the story behind it is even more curious. In the early years of the Russian Revolution many ”cultural workers”, i.e. Russian artists, writers and musicians, embraced the professed egalitarian ideals of the their new ”worker’s state” with passionate seriousness. They were rid of the hated Tsar, the days of Stalin’s terror lay far off in the future and people were still hopeful that a new Russian society with real equality and justice would soon come to pass.

Egalitarian analysis

    In 1922 a group of Moscow musicians analysed the power structure within an orchestra and came to the conclusion that it expressed authoritarian and bourgeois ideals and displayed a hierarchical structure. They consequently decided to form a completely new kind of symphony orchestra, that would not be pushed around by an anti-democratic conductor.

    This was a sensational show of radical egalitarianism. The new orchestra’s name was to be the First Symphony Ensemble, but the corresponding Russian words were contracted into an acronym -- PerSimfAns or Persimfans. Under this name the orchestra was to be well known and popular during the next ten years.

Mozart at the piano

    Actually, from a longer historical perspective of a century or so, this would not have seemed all that unorthodox and astonishing. Because the conductor had started flailing his arms in front of the symphonic orchestras of the world rather late, in the 1820’s. Mozart still directed his symphonies from his seat at the piano. Beethoven embraced the newfangled idea of a separate conductor, but at that time he had already become stone deaf, so the musicians wisely ignored his gestures.

    In Persimfans the seating of the musicians was rearranged into a large circle, so that they faced each other. They took their cues from each other’s glances and small prearranged signals. In order to be able to perceive the overall musical impression during rehearsals, one member of the orchestra sat where the public was supposed to sit and reported back to the others.

The timing of modernists

    All decisions regarding what to play and how to interpret a particular musical composition were taken collectively. Lew Zeitlin, one of Persimfans’ founding members, came up with the idea of “monographic” concerts, i.e. concerts consisting of several compositions of the same composer. True to their ideals of equal access to culture by the working man and the intellectual alike, Persimfans often gave concerts in factories, on construction sites, etc.

    Persimfans succeeded in playing even modern compositions, with their complicated timing patterns, e.g. works by Sergey Prokofyev, exceedingly well. Dmitri Shostakovich was less pleased, but then he privately took a dim view of the Soviet state rather early on, sneering at the renaming of Saint Petersburg by calling it “Saint Leninburg”.

Out of step with politics

    The downside of all this wonderful equality was that the Persimfans rehearsals became rather chaotic, and in any case extremely time-consuming. Another downside, on a more serious note, was that Persimfans in their idealistic revolutionary fervour, were getting themselves more and more distanced from political realities. Lenin may have overused the word “equality” in his speeches, but there was never any doubt in his mind that he himself and the Communist Party bosses were most equal of all.

    With Stalin in power soon after Lenin’s death, the flagrant discrepancy between the totalitarian Soviet dictatorship and the democracy of the idealistic Persimfans musicians became a conspicuous eyesore for the harshly anti-democratic authorities. In 1932 the orchestra was disbanded and during the next few years its members were dispatched to the Gulag camps.


Eckhard John: Orchester ohne Dirigent: Das Moskauer »Persimfans« und seine Nachfolger.
In: Direktion und Dirigieren. Symposium der Musik-Akademie Basel 1999