History of the Greatest Conductorless Orchestra

About the famous Pervyi Sinfonicheskii Ansambl, history of the world's greatest conductorless orchestra.


Pervyi Simfonicheskii Ansambl


Conductor Otto Klemperer was once invited to lead the Pervyi Simfonicheskii Ansambl in a concert in Moscow. Midway through the program, however, Klemperer laid down his baton and took a seat in the audience, and the ensemble finished without him.

A remarkable feat on the face of it, and yet no one present was surprised in the least, for the group, known more familiarly by the abbreviation Persimfans, had been making its mark since its premiere performance in February, 1922, as the world's first and greatest conductorless orchestra. (Pervyi Simfonicheskii Ansambl means "First Symphonic Ensemble.")

"It isn't that we're opposed to conductors," the group's founder, violinist Lev Zeitlin, once remarked, "just bad conductors." But Zeitlin and company, in keeping with the egalitarian philosophy of Karl Marx, eschewed all men with batons, with the occasional exception of invited guests like Klemperer. As musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky puts it, the Persimfans "was intent on demonstrating that in a proletarian state orchestra, men do not need a musical dictator."

Indeed, the Persimfans fared admirably without a leader, although its successes came only after endless racking rehearsals and conferences during which every performer had to become familiar with the entire score. Works by Haydn, Mozart, and their contemporaries were simple enough to present few problems. But the group was challenged severely by the orchestral excesses of the Romantics and the complexities of 20th-century compositions.

Within the ensemble, a smaller committee of musicians was elected to meet regularly to decide on such intangibles as the volume, dynamics, tempo, and style of specific concert pieces. Then, at rehearsals, one of the committee members would sit in the balcony to monitor and report back on the effect.

Onstage, the group played in a circle so that each musician was plainly visible to all of his colleagues. "The utmost concentration and attention is demanded of each player, all of whom are fully conscious of their responsibility in that magic circle," the French pianist Henri Gil-Marchex, who performed with the Persimfans, once wrote. "Each member of the orchestra has his own important part to play, and glances, raising of the brow, and slight motions of the shoulders... are done by each instrumentalist, but so discreetly that the listener...seldom notices it." In January, 1927, Sergei Prokofiev appeared with the Persimfans in a program that included his Piano Concerto No. 3, as well as his orchestral suites from Chout and The Love for Three Oranges. "The conductorless orchestra coped splendidly with difficult programs and accompanied soloists as competently as any conducted orchestra," Prokofiev, who was rarely quick to praise, later said. "Their main difficulty lay in changing tempo, for here the whole ensemble had to feel the music in exactly the same way. On the other hand, the difficult passages were easily overcome, for each individual musician felt himself a soloist and played with perfect precision."

The Persimfans won worldwide acclaim throughout the 1920s and inspired imitators in Paris, Berlin, and New York. In 1927 they were named an Honored Collective by the Soviet government. Ultimately, however, dissension within the ensemble--coupled with a relaxation of the state-held view that guidance and leadership by a trained individual are always ideologically offensive--proved the group's undoing. In 1932 the Persimfans was disbanded.

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