an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

As Putin turns to Stalin, classical music adopts the ostrich position

Musicians the world over spoke up against the persecution of Pussy Riot, who have been jailed for staging an anti-Putin gig in a church. Sir Paul McCartney appealed for their release. Madonna voiced her protest. Prominent Russian musicians have expressed revulsion.

All of them popular musicians.

From the classical music community, not a peep has been heard. You might expect silence from Valery Gergiev and Ana Netrebko who joined the election-rigging president’s re-election band-waggon. But there are plenty of independent-minded conductors and soloists and singers in Russia and none of them has stood up to show solidarity with three young women who have been denied basic human rights of free speech and a fair trial.

Why not?

It’s not too late to show that classical music has as much of a conscience as pop.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. Couldn’t agree more with this article.

  2. The difference is that pop music gets its money from sales. Speaking your mind, right or wrong, increases notoriety thus increasing sales.

    Classical gets its from patronage.

    How does the song go again?

    “Say hello to the new boss…same as the old boss.”

  3. stephen sheach says:

    Petition[ signed – when the prosecution ‘evidence’ amounts to accusations of witchcraft and the countreies dicator decides the verdict, Then we all have a duty to speak outm Do we want another time when people like Shostokovicz are scared to express themselves

  4. I fear the USA is heading the same direction…

    • Especially if R.Money and Rand Ryan manage to sneak their way into office, as unlikely as that is.

  5. Human rights to blaspheme in a Church? Free speech to desecrate a holy place and scandalize worshippers? Yes, I an personally revulsed by it. Too many times Christians have to take outrage and shut up about it. I don’t think those three ridiculous girls (altho in their mid 20′s) should go to jail for their adolescent provocations, but instead pay a fine or do community service. They got enough attention already.

    • This isn’t really worth responding to, and will remain that way, but:

      “Too many times Christians have to take outrage and shut up about it.” What kind of “outrage” exactly? That Jesus taught something different than this kind of arrogance towards others and that this doesn’t reserve you a place in heaven, or is it that it’s reported in the bible that he actually threw the money changers out of the church. Another “scandalous” riot due to “immaturity” and not being properly “indoctrinated.”

      WOW! I didn’t even see that in the papers: Putin’s dedication towards family values and the church is upheld when Pussy Riot is sentenced to years in jail. I’m sure “Russia” will welcome you just like they did, ah.. (who was that your were going on about on this blog from June 21 to July 20th that was in Russia)?

      WOW! I didn’t know that Pussy riot was part of the recent Bouguet of Opera. Does this have anything to do with Spencer Tunick?

      • Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York writes: “I recall when I was mayor in 1989 and the AIDS activist group Act Up, unjustifiably angry with John Cardinal O’Connor, invaded St. Patrick’s Cathedral and interrupted the mass, throwing the communion wafers… to the floor. Some were arrested. So far as I can recall, no one was punished. I think the decision of the Russian court to punish a hate crime was just and to be applauded, rather than condemned and ridiculed. One can argue concerning the degree of punishment, whether fines rather than jail time should have been imposed, but that is a function of the Russian penalty procedures.”
        The above and all the way up to the present burning of Nigerian churches as a Sunday sport.
        (PS from what I read ,the little ambassadress of sweet song in Russia is also promoted as a icon of American family values,)

  6. The Western media should have shown the whole clip of this outrage and not just parts. The translation below of the blasphemous song shows this stunt is more about radical feminism than Putin:
    Classical Russian musicians would have understood the exact words. Any of them with decency would not endorse such a spectacle.
    Just a thought, if this invasion was carried out in a mosque or synagogue, would it still have been considered by its supporters as an exercise in free speech?

  7. I agree, Norman–great post, but when we-writ large-consistently claim that classical music is, or should be, ‘above politics’ — what do we expect? Time we consigned that critical cliche to the dustbin, where it always belonged.

  8. It is perhaps little wonder that there is seldom protest in the classical music world. We are dealing with people who from their earliest training are formed into highly regimented, steeply hierarchical groups where they obediently react to how an absolute authority figure waves arms. This also helps us understand why classical music is the most conservative and bourgeois of all the art forms.

    • William Safford says:

      Also, think about who pays the salaries, whether in Russia or the U.S. Who pays for the Mariinsky Theater and its ensembles? For that matter, what’s the new name of the formerly-known-as-New York State Theater at Lincoln Center? …

  9. Jozef Kapustka says:

    Entirely not surprising yet very noticeable silence indeed, taken into account that in a dark ages style parody of justice, a “court” with tacit complicity of KGB appointed religious and “spiritual” leadership, against not only all common sense but all man’s and god’s laws has “sentenced” three girls to 2 years of hard labour camp for “blasphemy”.
    Free immediately and unconditionally “Pussy Riot”!

  10. The conscience of many in the pop world is a mile wide and an inch deep.

  11. @Doug: I found the story of US rock singer Country Joe McDonald, who had a anti-Vietnam War protest song (“The ‘Fish’ Cheer / I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag”) that was widely known since Woodstock 1969.

    From NPR’s blog: ‘His song caused a sensation at Woodstock, but McDonald says he never worried about a resulting jail sentence, even though, he says, the FBI kept a file on him. “The only consequences I had was to be avoided as far as the box office is considered,” says McDonald. “I became a living legend and problematic to the business of show business”‘ (

    When Pete Seeger covered the song in 1970, distributors refused to handle it, and it was never officially released.

    So yes, there _is_ the risk direct financial losses for non-classical musicians if they upset the establishment. But e.g. McDonald says he “only” had financial losses, and no really serious consequences like Pussy Riot.

    Compared to the reactions from the classical scene, that’s a different spirit, ethically vastly superior.

    @NL: Thank You for raising this issue! I hope many other classical blogs will follow.

  12. José Bergher says:

    Video of the repressive action by the present Communist regime directed by the Communist Putin, former head of the KGB:

  13. Excellent & well pointed article

    All these Russian Musicians are happy to work in the West, get better paid & enjoy the freedom & good human rights that go with this but not a word from them!

    Gutless & Cowards are a few words (printable) that I can think of.

  14. Barenboim is the only one who stands up and isn’t afraid. HE’S the one who should get the Nobel Peace Prize, but why give a very tarnished prize to the authentic example? Then he’d be in the same list as Kissinger and Obama.

    His remarks following the Proms Beethoven 9th is a perfect example of his advocacy.

  15. When will the classical music community stop giving Gergiev a free pass? Barenboim is a million times the musican and person he is.

  16. When the Sex Pistols insulted Queen Elizabeth in 1977 in a foul parody of God Save the Queen, they were fined and their concerts banned. Later the members of the group suffered physical attacks but the perpetrators were not found.
    Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the pussies, participated in a “fertility rite” in 2008 at Moscow’s Biological Museum. Nine months pregnant she completely stripped and got down on the floor with her husband to show how babies are made. Four days later her daughter was born. She did say their latest stunt was to protest the Patriarch’s support of Putin who has taken an “anti-feminist” course.
    When women’s rights have been taken for granted for decades in a Socialist egalitarian society, one wonders what these outspoken current feminists are about except that the Russian Patriarch has spoken in favor of traditional family values. This is what really is burning them up, not necessarily politics, and why they had to bring their “protest” to a Church..
    Louise Veronica (Catholic names) / Esther (Kabbalah name) Ciccone has been selling a weird mixture of sex and religion from the time she preempted the name Madonna. So it is not surprising that she of all people would come out in favor of a Lupercalia right in the Church itself as she has been bastardizing holy symbols for years.
    The Russian classical musicians got it right because they are closer to the sources of information. Well meaning but less informed individuals would like to stand up for fairness but they don’t know the whole story and the issues behind it. The jail sentence passed down unfortunately played into the hands of the opposition since now the trio have become folk heroes, a status they don’t deserve. It would have been better to throw a blanket of obscurity on them, and a real one in the museum.

    • The first sentence in this post is untrue, so far as I am aware. The second is half-true. The entire comparison is unfounded. The Sex Pistols were not put on trial in the UK, not prejudged by the head of state and not sentenced to jail. In these respects, the analogy with Pussy Riot is misplaced.

    • Dear Mr. Lebrecht,

      maybe cabbagejuice’s sentences are not completely true about the Sex Pistols, but what he/she says about the lack of information in the Western media is true.
      And I would be extremely curious too to see the consequences of such a “performance” in a mosque or a synagogue.
      During a classical concert would you like to be a spectator of such exercises of free speech? Isn’t it my right to assist to a concert in peace? Isn’t it my right to go to a church for a pray without being disturbed by some other’s rights? Why when a woman enter a church, even if she is atheist, she can’t wear a swimsuit? Have we forgotten about the respect we should have for other people, for places of worship? If in our society there won’t exist rules for the expression of our rights any more, what a society it will be?

  17. Did any of these paragons of pop speak up when, for instance, Andrew Ryan was jailed here for burning a copy of the Koran?

    Thought not.

    • I should hope not.

      No sensible person would support this idiot.

      What he did was offensive to many people & not just Muslims.

      He got exactly what he deserved.

      • I didn’t know that idiocy was illegal, and some people choose to be offended – especially those with short fuses. Causing offence should not carry a prison sentence – or should I say, causing offence to some people should not carry a prison sentence.

        Your comment “No sensible person” says it all.

  18. OK, I got my facts a bit jumbled, reading too quickly:
    “Instead, Lydon and the Pistols were merely banned from the airwaves, though the group would pay a high price, being hassled by police and attacked by nationalist thugs.”
    But there is a correlation between pop events or street theatre misplaced as it may be, to protest national policy. If I understand the SP’s, they were picking on the Queen for whatever was going wrong at the time. Cat Riot used a museum and church to protest the cooperation of Church and State.
    Now, if this were Italy…and if the Pope’s butler is convicted, he will have to spend time in an Italian jail.

  19. The really sad thing in this is, that apparently the majority of the population in Russia wanted a harsh verdict.

  20. Ivan Moody says:

    Since I am both a “classical musician” (ie, a composer) and a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church, I feel that I should repost here what I put on my Facebook wall two days ago:

    “I have not said anything here about Pussy Riot, but I will say two things now.

    Firstly, it is more than obvious that the group’s song/demonstration was offensive to Orthodox (and other) Christians. One only has to look at the lyrics, which are around on the internet. Though they did not go into the altar, they were right in front of the iconostasis of the cathedral, and the women certainly knew how offensive this would be, as any Russian would, believer or not.

    Secondly, it is just as obvious that the punishment for this action – which, it seems, may not even have been correctly categorized in terms of a crime according to Russian law – is entirely disproportionate, whether the State or the Church is behind it (something also being much discussed in the Russian media). From the Christian point of view, the law of love indicates – no, mandates – that what would have been appropriate would have been a reprimand and forgiveness. Now the women have been made into martyrs.

    This serves nobody, not Russia, not the Russian State, and not the Russian Church. Gospodi pomiluy.”

    • Perfectly said

      I can’t believe that anyone would disagree with a single word.

    • No, the Law of Love (something which is Universal not just Christian) would dictate that forgiveness points out that there is no injustice to overlook (or reprimand). It comes from two words For and Give. It points out there is no loss there, and no need to hold onto loss or an idea of injustice. We come from pure light, Quantum physics even says that the Universe came from a singularity which expanded INTO itself, not out of itself. Unconditional love that there’s no resistance to. And forgiveness, this applies to everyone, including Putin. It is the understanding that when you judge another you hold onto something inside yourself that you believe is unforgivable and this effects your own ability to see or experience anything beyond that.

      Pussy riot however, I believe, is pointing out how offended people get about something which may be annoying but is still non violent (I at least don’t see them arresting anyone); and then the uncomfortable people turn to a system which believes that discipline is resorting to a penal system which believes that traumatizing people to behave creates social harmony. The same system which thought that they could kill Jesus to instigate social control. Maybe this is offensive to people when Pussy-Riot suggests that mother Mary become feminist and drive out Putin. But sociology only points out that when women are in charge, there’s less money put into the war machinery, the distribution of wealth is more egalitarian. And then, Mother Mary actually is part of the energy that forgives all things restoring harmony. There’s no punishment there for people who are so hurt and traumatized that they do the things people jump to find means to punish, adding to the cause of what they are fighting against. Where Mother Mary is there’s only the love that those people always needed, that all people need.

      • I’ve been wondering if those church folks would have been so deeply offended if the perpetrators had been men. It seems to be the impudence of women that they can’t tolerate.

        • Ivan Moody says:

          Actually, I don’t think so. The song itself is blasphemous (pace Roelof Bijkirk) and it would have been so whether performed by men or women. And the sentence would have been utterly disproportionate in either case.

          • Sadly, it should be considered that this denomination, led by people literally referred to as Patriarchs, would also consider women priests blasphemous — or at least something contrary to their “patriarchal” reading of scripture. The actions of Pussy Riot thus touch on more than the demonimation’s political biases and point to its unfortunate sexism as well.

      • An analogy to the opera Tannhäuser might be useful here with respect to religion and culture. The protagonist Knight was torn between the sensual lure of Venusberg and saintly love as personified by Elizabeth, pendulating between the two. The earthly Church personified by the Pope did not absolve his licentious outburst but Divine forgiveness was granted in the miracle of a staff that bloomed.
        Pussy Riot brings the Venusberg into the Church and forces it on worshippers. That is the outrage here, much worse than Tannhäuser’s in the Wartburg which was not a holy place, after all. They also trespassed upon civil law which is quite specific. Dura lex, sed lex. The law is harsh but it is the law.
        As a PS to the other commenter, one would not expect men to be provocative in this way so as to promote radical feminism. Men prancing around in their underwear anyway is not very masculine.

  21. Does playing Tchaikovsky in st Petersburg now count as promoting homosexuality yet?

  22. Very well thought out intelligent statements: Pussy Riot Closing Statements

an ArtsJournal blog