And they say that symphonic music doesn't mean anything: Valery Gergiev's performance yesterday of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony with the orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre in the ruins of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, completely disproves the point. The choice of work couldn't have been any more symbolic for Russians: Shostakovich completed his piece, known as the Leningrad, during the siege of the city in the second world war. After its premiere in March 1942, it was performed in Leningrad in the still-besieged city by a makeshift orchestra in August.
Gergiev, who comes from Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia, spoke last night (in Russian and English) of "the horrible destruction of the city". He said that what happened in Tskhinvali was "a huge act of aggression on the part of the Georgian army". He continued: "If it wasn't for the help of the Russian army here, there would be thousands and thousands more victims. I am very grateful as an Ossetian to my country, Great Russia, for this help." But the music would have made that point even more strongly and even more clearly than his words did. The Seventh Symphony is the sound and symbol of liberation for Russians, as it was for all of the Allies in 1942, when Henry Wood and Arturo Toscanini conducted it that year in transatlantic performances.
Without doubt, Gergiev's performance in Tskhinvali was music as politics. Other conductors, notably Daniel Barenboim with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, have taken political risks with their music-making (although Barenboim always cannily insists that he is not a politician, just a musician who brings people together). But no other conductor in recent years has made so naked a political gesture, in the middle of an ongoing conflict, as Gergiev did last night.
He would have been heard, as well: Gergiev has transformed the musical life of St Petersburg, recently building a new opera house and concert hall in the same time it takes most cities to file a planning application. He is ruthlessly single-minded about getting what he wants, musically speaking, whether pushing his Mariinsky Theatre forces to the limits of their stamina with their concert and touring schedule, or producing incendiary performances with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Although he is a friend of Putin's, Gergiev is no political pawn. There's no doubt that his patriotism is genuine. He felt the tragedy of Beslan with personal intensity and gave an unforgettable benefit concert for the victims at the Coliseum in London. It remains to be seen what effect Gergiev's intervention will have on the situation: at the very least, it can only have galvanised the strength of Ossetians and Russians to stand firm against Georgia and the UN. Gergiev, after all, is a musician who wants to make a difference, musically and politically. August 22, 2008, 1:00 PM
One of the musical highlights of my life was Valery Gergiev playing Shostakovich 7 (the Leningrad) at a Melbourne Festival. Now I see he has performed the same work as a deliberate political statement in South Ossetia as Russian tanks occupy Georgia - and I've bought my last-ever Gergiev CD. I think it is a despicable and contemptible bit of politicisation by an ambitious and unscrupulous careerist. Gergiev would have been right at home in the Third Reich beneath those massive swastikas hobnobbing with Hitler and Goebbels; or kowtowing to Stalin and his friends in a different totalitarian state. Just goes to show, as though we didn't know, that musical genius has nothing to do with ethics or honour. As Putin tries to rebuild the Russian empire on the aspirations and the graves of non-Russians unfortunate enough to live next door, Gergiev will be there conducting encores. It is the exact opposite of courageous conductors such as Barenboim, trying to use music to enhance peace in the Middle East. I can only hope that Western music lovers take notice and react, and that his career in this hemisphere falters as it deserves. Comment No. 1285857, August 23, 16:14
PS: You should be ashamed of such disgusting sycophancy, Tom. No doubt Furtwangler was sublime and patriotic as he conducted Beethoven and shook hands with Goebels afterwards, as the famous YouTube clips show. Doubtless there were brave Serb musicians happy to play amid the ruins of Sarajevo. Your choice of words betrays a remarkable lack of understanding, but what the heck - at least you are on the side of the powerful, the thugs and the bullies, and above all the winners. Good choice, Tom. Comment No. 1285872, August 23, 16:36
David, Deputy - I appreciate your comments, thanks. The point was to show how self-consciously political a gesture Gergiev was making with Shostakovich, and how a piece of supposedly abstract symphonic music can have directly political meanings and consequences, and be used to serve ideas and ideologies; not to take sides or to condone his, and Russia's, view of what's happening in Georgia and Ossetia. Apologies if the piece suggested otherwise - and I see I could have made that clearer. And yes, you're right, certainly Barenboim's initiative is of a different order: peace-enhancing where Gergiev's concert was explicitly politics-enhancing.
I'm not quite with you though, David, on the Furtwaengler case: I don't think the evidence of his biography suggests that he relished the role of Nazi flag-waver, and the final moments of that Beethoven 9 have a terrifying intensity, as you can see even on the few minutes of the performance on YouTube - there's something else in his music-making, I think, apart from state-sponsored celebration. We know that Furtwängler was tortuously conflicted over his relationship with the regime, and we know that Gergiev is a Putin supporter; the issue of how contemporary Russian nationalism relates to 30s Germany is another, more complicated question. Tom. Comment No. 1286306, August 24, 16:05, in Tom Service´s blog