Ian Pace | Why cancel Tchaikovsky? · LRB 10 March 2022

The conductor Valery Gergiev, a known ally of Vladimir Putin who appeared in one of his election campaign videos, has had concerts and contracts cancelled with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Vienna and Munich Philharmonic Orchestras, La Scala Opera House in Milan, the Edinburgh Festival, the Verbier Festival and more. The soprano Anna Netrebko, facing the prospect of similar prohibitions, has cancelled all performances until further notice. She has spoken admiringly of Putin and posed with the flag of pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists.

The Royal Opera House and the Met have cancelled appearances from the Bolshoi and Mariinsky Ballets. Piano competitions in Dublin and Calgary have refused to accept Russian competitors. The amateur Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra has withdrawn a Tchaikovsky concert including the 1812 Overture. The Swiss Théâtre Orchestre of Bienne Soleure has cancelled its remaining performances of Tchaikovsky’s opera Mazeppa.

Some Russian musicians, including the pianists Evgeny Kissin and Alexander Melnikov, the conductors Vasily Petrenko and Semyon Bychkov, and the soprano Natalia Pschenitschnikova, have spoken out against the war. They do not face cancellations. At the same time there have been efforts to lionise music and musicians who can be categorised as Ukrainian rather than Russian, difficult though it may be in some cases to make a clear distinction.

There’s nothing new about the enlisting of music and musician to political causes. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, the centenary of Beethoven’s birth, his music was presented in Germany as embodying purity, health, strength and moral soundness, in contrast with the alleged moral decline, debilitated health and decadence of French culture.

From the other side, following the outbreak of the First World War, Debussy wrote to a pupil that ‘we are going to pay dearly for the right to dislike the music of Richard Strauss and Schoenberg’ and ‘French art needs to take revenge quite as seriously as the French army does!’ He began to call himself musicien français and developed a new musical idiom rooted in ideals of antiquity and classicism, further away from Germanic music (especially that of Wagner) than previously.

During the Second World War, by contrast, the British pianist Myra Hess gave regular concerts at the National Gallery in London, even at the height of the Blitz, often playing Austro-German music, including Beethoven.

At the end of the war, however, the situation became more complicated again. German composers, conductors and performers including Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Eugene Jochum, Walter Gieseking and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf found themselves under intense suspicion and their ability to perform limited. Denazification was applied inconsistently: Gieseking for a while could perform in the French Zone but not the British or American ones; Carl Orff found himself unable to work in Munich, but permitted in Stuttgart, where one of the local theatre and music officers was one of his former students – both cities were under US administration.

Less suspicion fell on compromised citizens of other nations, such as the Romanian conductor George Georgescu or pianist Dinu Lipatti, who had undertaken concert tours of areas occupied by Nazi Germany, or the Japanese conductor Hidemaro Konoye, who regularly conducted the Berlin Philharmonic and even recorded the Horst-Wessel-Lied with them. Many key figures involved in the development of new music in Germany after 1945 were also presumed to belong to a realm apart from Nazism, such as Werner Meyer-Eppler, the phoneticist, physicist, proponent of electronic music and teacher of Stockhausen. But Meyer-Eppler had been a prominent figure in the National­sozialistische Fliegerkorps, and one of a group of elite scientists working on major military programmes during the last year of the war. The British occupiers forbade him from working at his university in Bonn. Only by reinventing himself as a different type of scholar, looking at phonetics and speech synthesis (without which the history of elektronische Musik might have been very different), could Meyer-Eppler return to a full university position.

Most of these musicians had been involved in activities that in some sense glorified or propagandised for a genocidal regime. Yet concerns quickly receded, denazification was relaxed, and German conducting in particular was dominated for decades after the war by men with tainted personal and political histories. The Cold War quickly became a much more charged arena. The propaganda value of music competitions had been apparent to the Central Committee of the Communist Party since Lev Oborin’s victory at the first International Frederyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1927. There was a shock when the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 was won by the Texan pianist Van Cliburn, who had studied with the Russian exile pianist Rosina Lhévinne at the Juilliard School in New York. Cliburn became a US national hero, receiving a ticker-tape parade for his triumphant return home. The Soviets paid increased attention to their strategy for selecting competitors. The competitions had become not only about the finest performers, but which political system was better for nurturing talent.

Soviet musicians’ international travel was carefully limited. Sviatoslav Richter, born in Ukraine, was not allowed to visit the West until 1960, at the age of 45, because his father, of German origin, had been arrested as a suspecter spy in Odesa in 1941 and executed. Other pianists such as Maria Yudina, Vladimir Sofronitsky or Samuil Feinberg were rarely if ever allowed to travel, and became known to a few Westerners only through hard-to-obtain recordings made in the Soviet Union. Those who defected, including the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, received intense attention as propaganda for the greater artistic freedom claimed by the West. When Soviet musicians did manage to travel, their concerts were often embroiled with politics. After the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 there were demonstrations outside a performance by the State Orchestra of the USSR at the Proms in London. A planned British tour by the violinist David Oistrakh in 1971 was cancelled following tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, journalists and academics by the UK and the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, musical and ballet events by Soviet artists in San Francisco were met with protests as part of a campaign against the USSR’s policies preventing Jewish emigration to Israel.

The state control of music-making in Putin’s Russia is not on a level with Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. A musician does not automatically ‘represent’ the country or the regime, though the opportunities for those still in Russia to speak out against the government are already limited and likely to become more so. Putin’s nationalism differs in some respects from that of the 19th-century, when ‘Westernisers’ and ‘Slavophiles’ argued about the country’s musical future as well as its interactions with the West. But it cannot be wholly separated from those roots, which informed the musical language of Musorgsky, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov and to an extent Tchaikovsky, some aspects of which were perceived as specifically ‘Russian’, opposed in particular to what were thought to be Germanic norms.

During a time of war, it is inevitable and not necessarily inappropriate to limit some cultural interactions with an enemy nation, not least as part of a strategy of isolating an aggressor. If Russians cannot compete in international sporting events, should musical competitions be different? Is it any more unreasonable to want to postpone a performance of the bombastic and militaristic 1812 Overture than it was for the British conductor Mark Elder to express doubts about conducting the Last Night of the Proms following the outbreak of the 1991 Gulf War? (Elder was promptly replaced.)

Moral and aesthetic considerations cannot be assumed to mirror one another. Too little has been said about the roots of Geräusch-Musik (noise music) in the militaristic and misogynistic worldview of Fascist-aligned Italian futurists, in particular Luigi Russolo; this is a vital consideration, but I would not wish the whole genre to be dismissed as a result. Conversely, there is no reason to expect ‘good’ people to produce important art, or that works which explicitly align themselves to a worthy cause – as with countless 9/11 memorial pieces; no doubt more than one lachrymose ‘Lament for Ukraine’ for string orchestra is currently being composed – should automatically be thought to have any wider value.

In the hoped-for event of an ultimate ceasefire and Russian withdrawal, what happens to Russian music and musicians then? To ‘cancel’ them in the long term would be futile and culturally impoverishing; I hope that there will still be further chances to hear performances by Gergiev of music by Musorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev and others outside Russia. But we should not harbour the delusion that such music stands above politics in some transcendent realm.

With thanks to my doctoral student Sarah Innes for information relating to Soviet artists visiting the UK.

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