Yesterday's cover story in The New York Times magazine begins with the story of Valery Gergiev's decision to conduct a concert in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, in the aftermath of the Russo-Georgian war. Born in Northern Ossetia, Gergiev, the most dynamic Russian conductor of our times, took the side of Putin's Russia over the cause of the Georgians. Inevitably, therefore, the author of the article, Arthur Lubow, is led to reflect on the relationship between music and politics.
Those reflections make little or no sense to me. "Separating music and politics is seldom so easy in Russia," Lubow writes. But it is seldom easy anywhere. Classical music in general, and opera in particular, while embodying "high culture," still tends to be more accessible than poetry and serious literature. Worried about the reactions from audiences, rulers have long watched what composers write and stage. Don Giovanni was not deemed proper for Vienna and premiered in Prague. Verdi's A Masked Ball, in its original version dealing with regicide in Sweden, had its setting shifted to Boston, one reason it contains characters with the delightful names of Sam and Tom. (Other Verdi operas, including Nabucco and I Vespri Siciliani, had also faced issues with the censors). It is true, as Lubow writes, that Modest Mussorgsky needed approval of the censors to stage Boris Godunov, but there was nothing unusual about that in nineteenth century artistic and political life.
Lubow makes much of Gergiev's ambitions and strong nationalistic fervor. Once again, though, it is not clear what the point really is. To mount major productions, conductors cannot just publish something in samizdat; they need money and all kinds of permissions to get the opera or symphony on the stage. If Gergiev were not wildly ambitious, he might be a more honorable person but we would never have the chance to experience what he can do. (I saw him do Prokoviev's Betrothal in a Monastery with the Kirov Opera in New York years ago; it was spectacular).
Opera, because it is sung, is tied together with nationalism in ways that are almost impossible to disentangle. Czechs take all sorts of pride in The Bartered Bride just as Danes do in Maskerade. The mere fact that Gergiev has sought to perform so many of the operas of Prokoviev and Shostakovich is surely due to the words as well as the music. It does not follow that Gergiev's position on the Russian war with Georgia was the right one. But it does follow that there is nothing sinister about loving one's country when one wants to bring its greatest cultural achievements to the attention of the world.
There are times when a musician will engage himself with a reprehensible regime as Richard Strauss did when in 1933 he accepted the position of president of the State Music Bureau under the Nazis. (He resigned in 1935). Yet if I opted never to listen to Strauss's Four Last Songs, I would only be punishing myself. And nothing done by Gergiev has come even close to that. He may be overextended and not everything he does is a success, but this is a man who deserves praise for his accomplishments, not insinuations that hold so little water.
Photo of Valery Gergiev courtesy of Getty Images