How Russia’s military action is further damaging its declining music scene

'What I find questionable are calls for a blanket ban on all things Russian, including performers who have bravely issued condemnations of the invasion, and, farcically, the music of Tchaikovsky and Musorgsky,' says Richard Morrison

Published: May 16, 2022 at 2:36 pm

Faced with a country’s destruction and the displacement of millions from their homeland, one feels trite talking about war’s effect on culture. Theodor Adorno’s famous line – ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ – warns us against taking refuge in pleasurable artistic things while the suffering caused by atrocities is still ongoing or raw in the memory.

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Nevertheless, the cultural repercussions of the conflict in Ukraine must be addressed, not least because they have had an impact on classical music in ways that have sometimes left me perplexed. I can understand that people want to express revulsion at what’s being inflicted by Putin’s regime. I can see why promoters and audiences in the West now wish to shun that small handful of Russian musicians who have, over many years, identified themselves as allies of Putin – such figures as the conductor Valery Gergiev, pianist Denis Matsuev and soprano Anna Netrebko. Similarly, I accept that ensembles closely associated with the Russian state – such as the Bolshoi Ballet, which was due to perform in London this summer – should be told they are unwelcome, even if the dancers themselves are blameless and quite possibly secret Putin haters.

What I find more questionable are calls for a blanket ban on all things Russian, including performers who have bravely issued condemnations of the invasion, and, farcically, the music of Tchaikovsky and Musorgsky. Isn’t it Russia that’s the intolerant society?

That said, I can’t see how it will be possible to normalise the exchange of musicians between the West and Russia for years to come. And it won’t primarily be the West that loses from that. It will be another nail in the coffin of Russian creativity. Another nail? Well, consider this. For half a century Russian musical life has been drifting into a backwater. The glorious succession of great Russian composers has come to a shuddering halt. It began with Glinka in the early 19th century and continued with the fervent nationalist music of ‘The Five’ and the more cosmopolitan masterpieces of Tchaikovsky and Scriabin. It was maintained throughout the Soviet era – bravely, in the face of horrible political pressures – by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Ustvolskaya and Khachaturian, while outside the country such émigré geniuses as Rachmaninov and Stravinsky drew constantly on their Russian roots for inspiration.

But since Shostakovich’s death in 1975, who? Rodion Shchedrin and Alfred Schnittke have their admirers; I’m not among them. And there are a few younger Russian composers (some settled in the UK) who write well-crafted music. None, however, has made an international impact to match the leading American, Finnish, British or German composers.

Then look at those once-great Russian musical institutions. The Bolshoi Opera in Moscow and the Mariinsky Opera in St Petersburg still produce amazing voices, no question, but their repertoire is governed far too much by what tourists want to see (or at least it was until pandemic and war clobbered the tourist trade), and their lumbering productions often look like hand-me-downs from Tsarist days. Much the same can be said about the repertoire of Russia’s leading orchestras. The country’s conservatories still turn out formidable string players and pianists, but the ambitious ones get out of Russia as soon as they can.

Why has this decline happened? Three things: repression, commercialisation and dysfunction. Repression has always been a facet of Russian life, but at least in Soviet times it gave creative artists an angry hidden agenda for their work. As far as I can see, that hasn’t happened in Putin’s Russia.

Commercialisation has damaged the integrity of many top Russian musical institutions, making them reliant on dodgy oligarchs and corporations for funding.

Commercialisation has damaged the integrity of many top Russian musical institutions, making them reliant on dodgy oligarchs and corporations for funding. And by dysfunction I mean that somehow Russian creative artists have lost the ability to connect with the deepest pangs of the Russian soul – something that united all the great composers mentioned above.

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Isolation will make this petrified inertia a lot worse. Since the bad old 1970s I’ve visited Russia many times and got to know many wonderful musicians there. I feel sorry for them now, and for the Russian public – which loves classical music with a unique intensity, but won’t get to hear foreign performers for the foreseeable future. It can’t be helped. The Russian state started this war. Russians can stop it. Until they do, every aspect of Russian life, including the arts, must feel the pain.

Authors

Richard Morrison classical music
Richard MorrisonChief Music Critic, The Times

Richard Morrison is the chief music critic and culture writer for The Times. He is also a columnist for BBC Music Magazine, for which he was awarded Columnist of the Year at the 2012 PPA Awards.

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