Ought to Russian composers be banned within the wake of the battle?

Three weeks in the past, 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 town was making ready for a doable siege.

His passing might need escaped my discover had I not witnessed a hanging tribute that lately came about in New York. In the course of the premiere of a brand new Philip Glass symphony at Carnegie Hall, Canada’s Nationwide Arts Centre orchestra performed a haunting piece composed by Shevchenko, loosely primarily based on the Ukrainian nationwide anthem.

“It’s known as ‘We Do Exist’,” Alexander Shelley, the conductor, informed the viewers. He defined that he had determined to carry out it earlier than Shevchenko’s loss of life, though it was now a posthumous tribute. Which may have been shifting sufficient. However because the melody soared, there was additionally an implied query hanging over the night: what to do with Russian music, given the horrors raging in Ukraine?

In spite of everything, Russian compositions and performers are an integral a part of the classical music world. A lot in order that when Shelley created the programme across the new Glass symphony — commissioned to honour the reminiscence of Peter Jennings, the Canadian-American broadcaster — it appeared totally pure to incorporate some sweeping Russian compositions.

However within the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there have been requires a musical boycott. Many western establishments have requested Russian artists to denounce the battle or distance themselves from Vladimir Putin. A few of those that refused, such because the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev and opera singer Anna Netrebko, have been dropped from playbills.

Some orchestras have gone even additional by cancelling performances of Russian music usually. The Cardiff Philharmonic recently removed Tchaikovsky from its programme; Putin responded to this and comparable cancellations by complaining that now not enjoying works by Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Rachmaninov is a type of “cancel tradition”. Different orchestras have continued to play Russian music, arguing that it’s pointless to censure items written way back. However the questions stay. Does it make sense to ban all issues Russian? Or is that this a step too far?

Personally, I really feel torn: I wish to sign my help for Ukraine, however banning music written lengthy earlier than Putin was born strikes me as odd. “It isn’t simple to know what to do,” Shelley confessed shortly earlier than the Glass occasion. That night, his “resolution” was to incorporate Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony on the programme beside Shevchenko’s piece.

At first blush, it might sound excessively PC to steadiness a Ukrainian work with one by the well-known Russian composer. However, as Shelley defined, the truth is extra complicated. Shostakovich wrote the Ninth Symphony in 1945, on a fee from Josef Stalin. The Soviet chief needed a triumphant musical celebration of communist energy. The symphony that Shostakovich delivered, nevertheless, was darkish, sarcastic and melancholic. A lot in order that Stalin’s goons later suppressed it.

Eighty years on, this twist is typically forgotten. Thus, to some, Shostakovich may invoke a way of Russian pleasure. Nevertheless, for Shelley, that individual symphony is a logo of protest in opposition to a repressive regime — and enjoying it’s a kind of tribute to the concept of revolt. To underscore the purpose, the Canadian orchestra additionally performed the Violin Concerto by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the Jewish-Austrian composer who fled the Nazis and refused to write down music till they have been vanquished.

By the way, the one piece free from any battle symbolism that evening was the symphony from Glass, which “got here off as quirky, mischievous, however not essentially public and open”, because the New York Classical Overview noticed.

What ought to we conclude from this live performance? One apparent level is that the invasion of Ukraine has seeped into the cultural panorama sooner than some other geopolitical occasion that the majority of us have ever witnessed.

One other is that music is a posh software in politics, its that means relying on context as a lot as something. Melodies that evoke nationalist pleasure to at least one set of ears can evoke totally completely different feelings to a different. And that results in a 3rd level: there might be hope in ambiguity.

As we speak, debates over the that means of performing the works of Ukrainian composers corresponding to Shevchenko, versus these of Russian artists could seem divisive. They don’t should be. In the course of the chilly battle, western and Russian audiences alike relished Tchaikovsky’s music, for instance. His melodies created bridges, not obstacles. It could be tough to think about this occurring any time quickly. However music is just not fairly as fickle as politics – and creativity needn’t essentially be a zero-sum recreation.

In order I left Carnegie Corridor that evening, I used to be glad to have been launched to Shevchenko’s work, as a show of Ukrainian pleasure. I used to be additionally delighted to have heard the sardonic, defiant Shostakovich. If nothing else, it reveals that there’s a lot to rejoice about Russia’s artistic legacy. We must always not let Putin sully that, particularly now.

Observe Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and e-mail her at gillian.tett@ft.com

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