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Long Live the Freedom of Art!

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War has befallen Europe – and besides comprehensive political responses of European leaders, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has left deep scars on the European landscape of classical music. 

From the perils of insidious cultural sanctions to the dreary ultimatum artists are facing, this article sheds light on the responsibility of musicianship in times of upheaval. 

– To put it briefly: Long live the Freedom of Art! 

Once again, war has befallen Europe. Since the 24th of February 2022, European freedom has yet again been subjected to a reckoning, and hesitance to uphold it has, in some regards, been manifest. Whether sanctions will be tightened or not, the overall European stance, utmost condemnation of the Russian invasion, has been broadly unambiguous.  

This response has also translated to the world of art. A month ago, the Munich Philharmonic, one of Europe’s leading orchestras, ended its relationship with its widely acclaimed chief conductor, Valery Gergiev. His close ties to Vladimir Putin have been somewhat tolerated for years in the world of classical music, be it his endorsement of LGBT-repressive policy in Russia or his advocacy for the invasion of the Crimea in 2014.  

Mr. Gergiev’s end 

Today, the European response to Mr. Gergiev’s political inclinations is comprehensive. After the outbreak of the war, his performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades at La Scala in Milan was booed by the audience. In addition, he was given an ultimatum by Mayor and President of the Opera House, Giuseppe Sala: for refraining from vigorously condemning the war, La Scala immediately ceased all artistic collaborations with Mr. Gergiev.  

– All over Europe, contracts with the Russian Maestro have been terminated.  

Anna Netrebko, one of the world’s greatest Sopranos, was likewise criticised for having enjoyed an ardent relationship with the Kremlin in the past that had already prompted the termination of her contract with an internationally leading opera house, the Metropolitan in New York.  

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Yet, from composers to musicians, even those with no ties to the Russian regime have not been exempted from the apparent sanctions of cultural nature. And to the detriment of underlying intentions, boycotts of Russian art and the propagation of Russophobe narratives are observations the Kremlin greatly embraces  with malign geopolitical intent. In effect, it seems that insidious cultural embargos resurrect a self-fulfilling prophecy – from a chapter of history that, as many hoped, had found closure. But given this reminiscence, lessons ought to be derived. 

“What choice do artists in Russia have when faced with the almighty power of the state?” 

For many aggrieved musicians, a great share of the sanctions in the realms of music has been blatantly disproportionate – if not inappropriate. According to their rationale, the great composer Tchaikovsky cannot be held responsible for the war, and neither can musicians in Europe who possess a Russian passport. And yet, bans of Russian compositions and musicians in European concert houses and international competitions have been abundant.  

According to Semyon Bychkov, chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, Russian musicians are facing dreary ultimatums. Thrown at a crossroads, they are compelled to choose between their home stage and the international landscape: If a year ago, Ms. Netrebko celebrated her birthday at the personal invitation of Mr. Putin, she now has been subjected to merciless Russian retaliation to her recent advocacy against the war on Ukraine, cancelling all her scheduled performances in Russia.  

Haunted by a ruthless authoritarian regime, musicians are very well informed on the price a public condemnation bears – are we, too? 

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Echoes from the past 

As one of our writers assessed in a previous article (Oggi come allora: la fuga degli artisti russi verso la libertà), the Russian Federation here engenders a sense of historical continuity: repelling its very own sources of art and culture, the government in place has – once again – proven impotent to uphold Russia’s rich and singular tradition of musicianship by publicly denouncing political dissidents as “traitors”. 

A Faustian bargain 

That free, uncontrolled artistic expression has always constituted a threat to authoritarianism is surely not a novelty. Hence, attempts to exploit the infamous arsenal of cultural weapons – for public indoctrination – have been numerous: As historian Marla Stone assessed in her writings on Italian Fascism under Benito Mussolini, “the regime offered cultural producers a Faustian bargain […]: in exchange for state sanction, financial support, and a chance for stylistic experimentation, artists and architects accepted Fascism’s role as a patron.” 

The fallacy of abstention 

Prima facie, it seems that the interdependence between the musical and the socio-political landscape is a weak one. Music, by its very nature, bears the admired attribute of seemingly transcending the quarrels of politics. For many, it embodies a passion of innate purity from which abstention naturally derives. 

Yet, music has never been abstinent from society. It both observes and interferes. Not least in the 20th century, the world of art has constituted a source of relentless political criticism as well as a lucid mirror of society. The sensation of complete annihilation of human virtue after the Second World War, for instance, heralded a novel era of atonal music that entirely departed from the foundations of musical sense.  

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Music is a deeply societal endeavour, but not a political one 

In this vein, music is a deeply societal endeavour, but not a political one. It is doomed to be embedded in a social context such that it inevitably impinges upon the often-tasteless arena of politics and the state. But it shall not descend into it. In current times of upheaval, music is once again asked to insist on this very nuance.  

That is, if the Western world of art intends to uphold its virtue of freedom, it must rise to its responsibility of condemning the war yet also valuing Russian musicianship that does so too. Let us not yield to narratives that oppose the latter, thereby undermining the inherent vocation of music: to be a source of expression that alternates our perception of society. 

– To put it briefly: Long live the Freedom of Art!

Author profile
Chief Editor

I am a Franco-German first-year student in the BIEM program. I am passionate about European politics, history, and classical music.

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