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  • Philip Al-Taiee

Passing the Baton: Conductors and the Politics of Music under Putin and in the Third Reich

Philip Al-Taiee is an undergraduate student reading History and Politics at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge.


In 2013, after hearing the well-known Russian conductor Valery Gergiev conduct Shostakovich, music critic Alex Ross noted that ‘the historical ironies surrounding Valery Gergiev are becoming uncomfortably intense.’ Ross was referring to the conductor‘s contradictory willingness to accommodate himself with Vladimir Putin’s regime, all whilst maintaining publicly that his artistry is independent of politics. Gergiev and colleagues such as the Greek-Russian founder of the celebrated MusicAeterna ensemble, Teodor Currentzis, serve as prime examples of the delicate balance that Russian artists must strike following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A moral responsibility to speak out has to be measured against their need to protect their career, friends, and family - all of which are subject to a regime that has successfully co-opted cultural elites. The baton with which they must conduct politics as much as their music has been passed onto these Russian conductors by their earlier German and Austrian counterparts, whose careers and legacies were defined by their varying degrees of interaction and cooperation with the Nazi regime, both before and during the Second World War. What makes conductors such relevant case studies is their prominence in the cultural politics of both regimes and their wider significance for the ensembles and institutions they lead and represent publicly. It is as of yet still impossible to directly compare Putin’s Russia to a regime responsible for a crime on the scale of the Holocaust. However, when approaching both Russia and Nazi Germany as autocratic states which co-opt their cultural elites for political purposes, comparing the two can provide some useful pointers with which we can assess the role of Russian conductors under Putin.

What has happened to Russian artists following the invasion? Three potential pathways are discernible. The first has seen Western cultural institutions cut ties with those conductors who failed to distance themselves from the regime. Among these was Gergiev, who was fired by the Munich Philharmonic and removed by other orchestras as a guest conductor. Some artists, on the other hand, may fail to speak out but either continue to perform in both Russia and the West (as is the case with Teodor Currentzis) or cease performing across the board (see the example of Tugan Sokhiev, who stepped down as both principal conductor in Toulouse and music director of the world-famous Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow). A third pathway has been chosen by those who publicly condemned the invasion and Putin’s actions and have subsequently refused to continue performing in their home country. Examples include Kirill Petrenko, conductor in chief of the Berlin Philharmonic, and Vladimir Jurowski, music director of the Bavarian State Opera - both of whom issued statements condemning the war. Similar patterns could be observed in 1930s Germany and Austria, with some conductors, of non-Jewish origin, such as Erich Kleiber who emigrated for political reasons. Others continued to perform in Germany but with reservations towards the Nazi regime, such as the foremost German conductor of his day, Wilhelm Furtwängler. However, some adopted the new ideology, among them the younger Austrian conductor Karl Böhm.

The second pathway in particular warrants closer attention. In an open letter, Jurowski cautioned against further action against Russian artists, arguing that ‘not everyone feels able to make a clear statement against Putin’s regime because such a statement may substantially harm the person themselves or their loved ones,’ adding that many ‘currently feel like hostages in their own countries.’ The policy implied by this letter, and that has been adopted by opera managers such as Serge Dorny in Munich, is not to ask Russian artists about their opinions on the war on the assumption they may not be able to speak out. This does not mean that the demands placed on artists like Gergiev are necessarily wrong. It is entirely possible to apply a stricter standard to higher-profile individuals who have already attained success, Gergiev included, than to lesser-known artists whose careers might be imperilled by such a statement. In a study of musicians in the Third Reich, Kater also distinguishes between those artists who, prior to 1938, had already enjoyed an international career to support themselves (such as Furtwängler) and those who were dependent on the support of the new regime to build a reputation, among which Kater counts Böhm.

It is entirely possible to apply a stricter standard to higher-profile individuals who have already attained success [...] than to lesser-known artists whose careers might be imperilled by such a statement.

Dorny’s blind-eye policy offers artists a grey zone to work in without being subjected to political examinations, yet it also provides opportunities for those who acquiesce to the regime and thereby advance their careers. In the process, it reverses a reasoning which Karl Böhm had used to accuse emigres of having had it easier than him during the Nazi period. He, so he claimed, had simply not been able to leave due to a lack of offers from abroad. Here, in an attempt at being apologetic for his own contributions to Nazi cultural politics, Böhm deliberately overlooks how his career was advanced by the regime when he moved to Dresden in 1935. Gergiev now finds himself in a similar position as Böhm. It is conceivable for him to claim that, by having been shut out of the West, he was forced to work more closely with the regime. Moreover, conductors who have taken a clear stance often lead lives away from Russia. Petrenko holds Austrian citizenship and Jurowksi has resided in Berlin since 1990. Applying Böhm‘s reasoning to Gergiev would of course overlook both the benefits he had already accrued and his conscious choice to not condemn the war. At the same time, however, it underlines the importance of preserving a grey zone for those who cannot rely on established careers or lives abroad, even though this might mean employing artists who still benefit from the regime back home.

The question remains as to why the case of Gergiev does not fall under this framework of indifference. Here, Karl Böhm provides a useful comparison. Early on, Böhm had understood the propagandistic and ideological usefulness of his own work for the Nazi regime. Böhm suggested to Nazi authorities as early as 1935 that his conducting concerts in Vienna could advance the position of the NSDAP and heighten Nazi sentiment in the Austrian capital. The culmination of this process was his appearance at the NSDAP party congress in 1936 as well as a concert with the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra on 30th March 1938. As one newspaper review of the occasion tells us, Böhm, even though not required to do so, appeared with a ‘German salute’ in a hall adorned with Nazi insignia and a large portrait of Hitler above the orchestra.

It is this uncomfortable symbiosis of regime and artist that forms the rationale for Gergiev’s exclusion and which taints the career of Böhm.

Whilst a similar review of the concert in the Wiener Zeitung does not mention Böhm’s gesture, it reiterates the clear political context of the concert which, in connection with Böhm’s letters three years earlier, was certainly obvious to him. Böhm had willingly and of his own accord instrumentalised his work for the benefit of the regime. It is a similar picture that a recent documentary by associates of Alexei Navalny attempted to paint of Gergiev, referring to him as the ‘Conductor of the War’ and Putin’s ‘shadow foreign minister.’ Böhm’s case is extreme, but the accusations levelled against Gergiev are similarly severe. Both appear to be not only entangled in cultural politics but willingly working in the name of their respective regimes through their music. Clearly, this goes beyond the advancement of careers through acquiescence and accommodation, and it is this uncomfortable symbiosis of regime and artist that forms the rationale for Gergiev’s exclusion and which taints the career of Böhm.

Teoder Currentzis and his MusicAeterna and Wilhelm Furtwängler provide a more complex example of the second pathway. Furtwängler, as opposed to Böhm, did have the opportunity to leave Germany for an appointment abroad. In 1936, he was chosen as successor to Toscanini at the New York Philharmonic, the Philharmonic citing Furtwängler’s earlier open letter against the exclusion of Jewish artists to justify their decision despite the conductor having reached a compromise with the German state apparatus in 1935. This thus occurred after the open letter and the Hindemith controversy which saw Furtwängler defer to Hitler’s cultural policy. It is a similar cultural apparatus that lifted Currentzis’s ensemble from the provincial town of Perm to Russia’s cultural capital Saint Petersburg by offering him funding via the state-owned VTB-bank, which is under the control of prominent Russian politicians and now sanctioned by the West. However, neither the orchestra nor its founder and chief conductor have cultivated a close political relationship with the regime of the kind Gergiev enjoys. Nonetheless, Currentzis has not publicly spoken out against the war and some members of the orchestra were suspended ahead of concerts in Germany due to online activity in support of Russia’s war.

Currentzis and Furtwängler’s situations are emblematic of musicians who become indirectly political largely via their attempts to remain apolitical. This is due to both their lack of public statements as well as their inevitable entanglement in structures of cultural politics, even without the ideological conviction displayed by Böhm. Moreover, it exemplifies the complex question regarding the uncertain point at which an artist begins to serve as a political ambassador. Furtwängler’s appointment was met with some resistance in New York, despite the Philharmonic Society originally depicting the conductor as ‘an opponent of the Nazi ban against non-Aryan artists.’ It was this apparent politicisation of his appointment that led Furtwängler to decline the position in New York, stating ‘(I) am not political.’ The same opposition to the politicisation of music triggered Sokhiev’s resignation in Toulouse and Moscow. Comparing Currentzis with Gergiev does not imply Currentzis is an open supporter of the regime but, in contrast to Sokhiev, he appears more opportunistic. Continued resistance to his appearances with MusicAeterna, not least from Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, further reflects the difficulty of disentangling his work from the state institutions that continue to restrain him and which he and Furtwängler seem unwilling to shake off entirely.

[Currentzis and Furtwänger] exemplify the complex question regarding the uncertain point at which an artist begins to serve as a political ambassador.

Aside from political statements, Kater cites the degree of aesthetic compromise as a vital measure of an artist’s allegiance to a political regime. Whilst Currentzis continues to perform in Russia, his programme remains unchanged and includes premieres of works by composers such as Crimean-born Alexey Retinsky. All this suggests a more uncompromising stance despite continued ties to the Russian state. Furtwängler became similarly entangled in a public controversy surrounding Paul Hindemith’s work ‘Mathis, der Maler.’ His support for Hindemith and the freedom of artistic expression came with an undercurrent of regime acquiescence by depicting Hindemith as a German composer worthy of the support of the Nazi regime. Ultimately, that Furtwängler remained a cultural figurehead of the regime is a fact ‘beyond dispute.’ Kater similarly attributes Böhm a degree of autonomy which was seemingly less visible in his early years in Dresden, where composers such as Berg and Krenek were ominously missing. Böhm’s position as the head of an institution such as the Dresden Opera might have left him with less room to manoeuvre. At the same time, the opportunity to institutionalise some artistic freedom would have been greater. As the artistic director of the prestigious Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Gergiev too navigates an institutionalised environment. At first glance, his choice of repertoire seems conventional and not overly nationalistic, featuring a revival of major Wagner productions. However, surrounding himself with notable pro-Putin artists such as the German conductor Justus Frantz, and the recent revival of an older production of an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov replacing that of regime-critical director Dmitry Tcherniakov, does give an indication not just of the unavailability of certain artists in the current time, but also Gergiev’s unwillingness to preserve the work of other, more critical, voices.

In 1946 Österreichische Zeitung published an article scathingly criticising the committee in charge of de-nazifying the Austrian cultural scene for rehabilitating Böhm, whom it portrayed as a fervent Nazi, citing the concert of March 1938 as evidence. Böhm was on the way to becoming an example of the Austrian willingness to overlook even those inhabiting the darker zones of the grey area and postpone ethical and political judgement seemingly indefinitely. On November 5th 1955, Böhm, as the new director, led a gala performance of Fidelio for the re-opening of the Vienna State Opera and five years later he appeared with the New York Philharmonic in a concert celebrating the Human Rights Day at the United Nations Headquarters. This official rehabilitation was not reflected on a personal level and Böhm remained convinced of his victimisation later in his life. Post-war Russia might find itself in a similar position should Putin’s regime come to an end. No straightforward mechanism of accountability suggests itself for the cases of Gergiev and Currentzis. However, the result should not be indifference to the politicisation of culture and music. Rather, it is time to acknowledge the inherent difficulties musicians face when navigating the political environments in which they work and live. When Gergiev and Currentzis eventually pass on their batons, these complexities should form part of our assessment of their careers as much as their conscious unwillingness to distance themselves from the Russian regime.


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