Commentary: What is Ukrainian music, and what does it say about the war?

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

That has never been truer. Russian music is a daily staple of classical music and dance in America, as it is throughout Europe and Asia. Nor will American sanctions or Putin censorship likely remove pervasive and persuasive American music from Russia.

As for Ukraine, where would Russian music — and Putin-ian nationalism — be without Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky and all the rest? Where would our music be without Bernstein (whom the Russians lionized), Gershwin, Feldman and the rest?

And where might we be if we, as we once did with the Soviet Union, tried our hands at a little cultural diplomacy that started from a place not of common interest but common love. Cultural leaders can say things that politicians either can’t or would never think of to say.

Bernstein also told this to Muscovites in 1959: “Here you realize at once how altogether old-fashioned wars are, how futile and unworthy it is that anyone should emerge as the victor.”

“Here, in the very center of Europe, one cannot help feeling … that wars serve only a pretext for the satisfaction of greed and thrust for power and for the economic expansion of one to the detriment of the others.” He then conducted Shostakovich.

What if today, an American orchestra with a beloved conductor brought a message of peace laden in great Tchaikovsky to Moscow? What if the demonized Valery Gergiev, who has been banned from the West because of his closeness to Putin, and his Mariinsky orchestra brought us a message of peace laden in great Ukrainian music, whatever that might be?


Speaking to the L.A. Times seven years ago, Gergiev said that the responsibility for peace between Russia and Ukraine “lies in the hands of the leaders in Russia, the U.S. and Europe.

“These people have to now decide what it takes to stop the fighting. If they do not, all of them will go down in history as the people who did not find an answer.

“They will never be forgiven. Never!”

Someone, even if it’s Gergiev, has to tell them.


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