Since its birth as a distinct category Classical Music has been allied with War. The orchestra as a European institution came into existence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries alongside the formation of standing armies. Autocrats buttressed their military power with the cultural prestige achieved through their musical establishments.
Orchestral musicians were commanded by a conductor who kept the regiments under him (strings, brass, winds) in strict sonic formation trained to follow his commands.
Military metaphors abounded. While touring northern Europe in 1772 the English traveler Charles Burney described the famed Mannheim orchestra as an army of generals even as he decried the pervasive militarism he encountered in Germany.
Into symphonies staged for their war-and-music-loving princes’ delectation composers sometimes imported the sounds of the fife and drum corps and had timpani and trumpet roar like cannons.
The most famous musical monarch of the age was the Prussia King, Frederick the Great. He practiced the arts of war in concert with the arts of music. Whenever his opera house wasn’t packed with an audience, he ordered his troops to fill it. Instead of taking up a martial instrument like the trumpet or organ, Frederick master the most intimate one, the wooden French flute, playing it to calm his nerves before battle and at the nightly concerts he held in the music rooms of his palaces. As his private flute teacher, Frederick poached one of Dresden’s musical generals.
There were rules of engagement. When Frederick occupied Dresden during the second of the three wars he fought against Austria and Saxony (eventually drawing the whole world into the third), he had the director of the Saxon musical establishment, Johann Adolph Hasse, along with brigade of subordinates accompany him for a performance in the city’s splendid opera house. Conqueror as musical celebrity: it was as if Bill Clinton had invaded Cuba and made the Buena Vista Social Club back him on stage in Havana.
Musicians down the chain of command, from conductor to second violinist, followed the protocols of discipline. In observing them, they could often retain their dignity even when their employers were defeated on the battlefield. After the Dresden concert of 1745, Frederick rewarded Hasse with a bejeweled ring and 1,000 thalers—far more than J. S. Bach’s annual salary as director of music in the biggest Saxon city of Leipzig. Yet when Frederick returned to Berlin and a short-lived period of European peace intervened, Hasse resumed his musical post in Dresden apparently without any ill-will directed his way from his defeated prince.
One of the biggest differences between the orchestrated warfare of those rococo days and our neo-baroque ones is that they didn’t have nukes. The other is that musicians now have to choose sides on the battlefield of public opinion.
No longer merely functionaries operating according to courtly diplomatic codes, musicians are now entertainers with public images to polish, personal brands to manage. Like the green-washed bona fides of “sustainability,” the performers’ ethical profiles must be carefully curated if they hope to flourish in the global concert hall, especially in times of international conflict.
Since Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine, the highest-ranking Russian musical brass has been court-martialed in absentia by an international tribunal: operatic soprano Anna Netrebko banned from the Met and other leading venues; Putin’s maestro Valery Gergiev stripped of his command of the Munich Philharmonic and sacked at La Scala.
Even before the borders in the Ukraine began being ruthlessly redrawn by Putin, the daring Greek-born conductor Teodor Currentzis has been refusing to obey musical boundaries. A dashing fifty-year-old with his long hair swept back Liszt-like, an earring, and glowering charisma in quantity, he has the look and ego of a demonic maestro who will take his listeners to hell and to heaven on a single evening, even across a single movement. His white hands practice black magic: he needs no baton to wield his power. A friend of mine calls him Count Dracula.
In 2004 while director of the opera and ballet in the Siberian city of Novosibisk, Currenztis founded musicAeterna. Seven years later he moved on to a similar post in Perm, just on the Europe-side of the Ural Mountains.
Currentzis still tours with musicAeterna, which has both an orchestral division and a choir. The group’s repertoire ranges across the symphonic centuries, from the eighteenth on, undeterred by the specialization that reigns in the realms of works composed during the time of the music-loving autocrats of the ancien régime. Currentzis relentlessly pursues the expressive, the dynamic, the astonishing. With swashbuckling resolve he rides the war horses of Classical Music across rough country. He brazenly searches out the ugly. But he can also spur his players to the most subtle effects.
Currentzis was made a citizen of Russia by Vladimir Putin in 2014, the year of the annexation of the Crimea. Currentzis has been resolutely silent on the War in Ukraine. In 2019 musicAeterna proclaimed itself an “independent” ensemble, but it is sponsored by Russian state-owned VTB Bank, now subject to Western sanctions.
Few were surprised, then, by the announcement this week that Currenztis would leave his post as chief conductor of the SWR Symphony Orchestra in Stuttgart Germany. All parties denied that his departure had anything to do with his political silence.
But Currentzis’s conducting finger had already been wetted and raised to the winds of war. In August he announced the formation of a new ensemble with the similarly grandiose name of Utopia. The group will be made up of more than a hundred musicians from thirty countries: a kind of musical United-Nations-meets-Doctors-without-Borders. This band will explore new frontiers of sound, and be free from the kind of institutional inertia that, in Currentzis’s view, characterizes the world’s most respected orchestras and leads to safe interpretations of the classics.
The main funding for Currentzis’s new initiative will come from Kunst und Kultur DM, an arts organization backed by Dietrich Mateschitz, one of the founders of the Austrian-based Red Bull corporation. Ten billion cans of the energy drink were sold last year, and one could ask whether preying on the world’s thirst for sugar and caffeine is morally neutral. I doubt Currentzis drinks the stuff. Given his mental and physical output, he certainly doesn’t need it. As for Mateschitz, he’s Austria’s richest man and anti-immigration, at least when the migrant’s skin is darker than his. Whether Currentzis’s realignments will satisfy his many critics remains to be seen and heard.
As the conductor’s ends and beginnings were made known this week, I was semi-obsessively watching him lead musicAeterna at the 2021 Salzburg Festival’s production of Don Giovanni on medici.tv. Currentzis’s mesmerizes from the outset of the opera, thunderbolting his Aeternalists for the damning sforzando chords of the overture, then at the apex of the thrust caressing the resulting sonic blast. Each paradoxical gesture is its own Faustian bargain.
“Red Bull Gives You Wings” runs the tagline. Currentzis now hopes that the drink will fuel his flight free from political entanglement, towards the stratosphere and beyond.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at email@example.com.)