Three weeks ago, a month after Russia launched its invasion, a Ukrainian composer named Yuri Shevchenko died of pneumonia, aged 68. He was trapped in a basement in Kyiv as the city was preparing for a possible siege.
His passing might have escaped my notice had I not witnessed a striking tribute that recently took place in New York. During the premiere of a new Philip Glass symphony at Carnegie Hall, Canada’s National Arts Centre orchestra played a haunting piece composed by Shevchenko, loosely based on the Ukrainian national anthem.
“It’s called ‘We Do Exist’,” Alexander Shelley, the conductor, told the audience. He explained that he had decided to perform it before Shevchenko’s death, although it was now a posthumous tribute. That might have been moving enough. But as the melody soared, there was also an implied question hanging over the evening: what to do with Russian music, given the horrors raging in Ukraine?
After all, Russian compositions and performers are an integral part of the classical music world. So much so that when Shelley created the programme around the new Glass symphony — commissioned to honour the memory of Peter Jennings, the Canadian-American broadcaster — it seemed entirely natural to include some sweeping Russian compositions.
But in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there have been calls for a musical boycott. Many western institutions have asked Russian artists to denounce the war or distance themselves from Vladimir Putin. Some of those who refused, such as the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev and opera singer Anna Netrebko, have been dropped from playbills.
Some orchestras have gone even further by cancelling performances of Russian music in general. The Cardiff Philharmonic recently removed Tchaikovsky from its programme; Putin responded to this and similar cancellations by complaining that no longer playing works by Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Rachmaninov is a form of “cancel culture”. Other orchestras have continued to play Russian music, arguing that it is pointless to censure pieces written long ago. But the questions remain. Does it make sense to ban all things Russian? Or is this a step too far?
Personally, I feel torn: I want to signal my support for Ukraine, but banning music written long before Putin was born strikes me as odd. “It is not easy to know what to do,” Shelley confessed shortly before the Glass event. That evening, his “solution” was to include Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony on the programme beside Shevchenko’s piece.
At first blush, it might seem excessively PC to balance a Ukrainian work with one by the famous Russian composer. But, as Shelley explained, the reality is more complex. Shostakovich wrote the Ninth Symphony in 1945, on a commission from Josef Stalin. The Soviet leader wanted a triumphant musical celebration of communist power. The symphony that Shostakovich delivered, however, was dark, sarcastic and melancholic. So much so that Stalin’s goons later suppressed it.
Eighty years on, this twist is sometimes forgotten. Thus, to some, Shostakovich might invoke a sense of Russian pride. However, for Shelley, that particular symphony is a symbol of protest against a repressive regime — and playing it is a type of tribute to the idea of rebellion. To underscore the point, the Canadian orchestra also played the Violin Concerto by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the Jewish-Austrian composer who fled the Nazis and refused to write music until they were vanquished.
Incidentally, the only piece free from any war symbolism that night was the symphony from Glass, which “came off as quirky, mischievous, but not necessarily public and open”, as the New York Classical Review observed.
What should we conclude from this concert? One obvious point is that the invasion of Ukraine has seeped into the cultural landscape faster than any other geopolitical event that most of us have ever witnessed.
Another is that music is a complex tool in politics, its meaning depending on context as much as anything. Melodies that evoke nationalist pride to one set of ears can evoke entirely different emotions to another. And that leads to a third point: there can be hope in ambiguity.
Today, debates over the meaning of performing the works of Ukrainian composers such as Shevchenko, versus those of Russian artists may seem divisive. They don’t have to be. During the cold war, western and Russian audiences alike relished Tchaikovsky’s music, for example. His melodies created bridges, not barriers. It may be difficult to imagine this happening any time soon. But music is not quite as fickle as politics – and creativity need not necessarily be a zero-sum game.
So as I left Carnegie Hall that night, I was glad to have been introduced to Shevchenko’s work, as a display of Ukrainian pride. I was also delighted to have heard the sardonic, defiant Shostakovich. If nothing else, it shows that there is so much to celebrate about Russia’s creative legacy. We should not let Putin sully that, especially now.
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Letter in response to this column:
Capturing the music of a composer’s defiant words / From Mark Eisinger, Rockville, MD, US