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Music, Politics, & Propaganda

Posted at 8:18 AM on September 9, 2008 by Fred Child

A few days after fighting came to an end in South Ossetia last month, conductor Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra played a concert in the South Ossetian city of Tskinvali. Gergiev opened the concert with remarks condemning what he called Georgia's "huge act of aggression," and thanked the Russian army for preventing "thousands and thousands more" casualties.

Gergiev's remarks touched on several points -- he said "about two thousand people died in the tragic days" (a figure disputed by human rights groups), he expressed a hope for peace and prosperity in Ossetia, a call for music to bring "the best of memories," and a reminder that the concert was to "remember those who died in the tragic days of this aggression." You can hear his remarks in English about a minute into this video.

In front of the bullet-scarred parliament building, Gergiev then led a politically charged performance of the Leningrad Symphony by Shostakovich -- music written to rally Russian spirits during the Nazi siege of Leningrad. (With the not-so-subtle inference comparing Georgia to Nazi Germany.)

The concert has sparked controversy among classical observers. Some praise Gergiev for a brave and patriotic gesture, some are calling for a boycott of Gergiev. Here's a sampling of reaction.

Editorial from the Times of London:

By putting (his talents) at the service of a propaganda celebration of Russian military might, he has crossed the line that ought to separate art from politics, beauty from brutality. He has made his music an instrument of Russian foreign policy, conducting in the name of conquest.

Tom Service, for the Guardian.

...a sublime political gesture from the patriotic Gergiev.

Mike Wussow, in Russia blog:

...surely one of the few propaganda coups -- and the classiest -- that Russia has had in the current international crisis.

From a thoughtful essay on classical music and politics by Philip Kennecott in the Washington Post:

Gergiev, in a single concert, has reminded us of the intensity of national feeling lurking in Russian music, and has allied himself with the questionable excesses of that same enthusiasm.

Gergiev's gesture...may well dog him as he continues his international career. Gergiev's friendship with Putin has raised some eyebrows in the past -- each is godfather to the other's children -- but most understand it as a canny alliance in Gergiev's larger battle: to keep the Mariinsky Theatre alive. His performance in Ossetia goes far beyond green-room chatter with Putin after a performance. He has now allied himself with a greater Russian nationalism, with all its anti-democratic consequences.

David Andelman, in the Huffington Post:

I have another message -- make sure that he never again lifts his baton in the free world. Gergiev has made his choice. He has chosen a totalitarian democracy and has removed himself from his right to mount a podium in a part of the world where audiences value freedom and real democracy--the kind of freedom that allows individuals to produce wonderful music, for its own sake, not as a tool of propaganda in the service of violent, illicit purposes.

...no other conductor in recent years has made so naked a political gesture, in the middle of an ongoing conflict, as Gergiev did...

Gergiev after the event, in conversation with Andrew Clark of the Financial Times:

"My performance was designed to commemorate the dead, not to be commented on by the Washington Post. For Tskhinvali, 1,000 dead is a devastating loss. It's the Ossetian equivalent of the Twin Towers. If the Russian army had not intervened, thousands more Ossetians would have been killed."

Again, Gergiev himself in a BBC interview, published on the Mariinsky Theatre site.

All I wish for is for the peoples of Georgia and Russia to know peace and insight, because it is still possible that there are many blunders to come.

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