The other day I read a remarkable article detailing the cowardly and despicable actions taken by many of the world’s leading houses of symphonic music and opera to remove Russian artists and even Russian composers from their repertoire as indignant protest to the Russian military action in Ukraine.
We all have heard how Peter Gelb at The Metropolitan Opera fired soprano Anna Netrebko for refusing to sign a denunciation of Putin and the war. We all have heard how the Munich Philharmonic fired its principal guest conductor Valery Gergiev on the same grounds. However, few among us have heard or read about the widespread exclusion of Russian musicians, including great talents who have newly arrived on the concert circuit. This blight is especially common in the USA and Canada, though it appears elsewhere as far afield as Australia. Moreover, concert programs are being modified to suppress Tchaikowsky and substitute for him works by Mussorgsky which for some trivial reason would seem to pass the political correctness test. In fact, as the author of this article explains in a master stroke of musicology, the substitutions only reveal the music-historical ignorance of the given philharmonic society administrators.
To understand the current Russophobia in the music world in its full dimensions, I enthusiastically recommend “Denounce Putin, or Be Blacklisted” by Heather Mac Donald. See https://www.city-journal.org/classical-music-cancels-russians
Against this grim background, I am delighted to share some good news: not everyone in the cultural world has lost his way morally. In some places, values hold the line against mass hysteria. I am still more pleased to say that little Belgium leads the way in this happy development.
I direct your attention to the “Statement – Ukraine” page on the website of the Queen Elisabeth Musical Competition: https://concoursreineelisabeth.be/fr/actualites/statement-ukraine/
In the middle of the screen are two paragraphs which merit translation in full:
“From its origins, the statutes of the Competition state clearly that ‘no ideological, linguistic, political, religious or racial motive can justify the rejection of a candidacy.’ All young artists will thus be welcome, whatever their nationality.
“In these troubled times, when some people do not hesitate to use the arts and culture for nationalist and warlike purposes, we believe on the contrary that the arts must continue to rally humanity around universal values such as peace, justice and liberty.”
I cannot think of a more eloquent tribute to the humane legacy of the Queen Elisabeth competition, in keeping with the character of its royal founder Elisabeth of Bavaria, Queen of the Belgians. Apart from her lifelong devotion to music, which I will elaborate on in a moment, Queen Elisabeth is remembered for using her German connections to rescue hundreds of Jewish children from deportation by the Nazis. In this regard, she was later awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli government (Wikipedia entry).
Regarding music, the Queen began as an amateur performer, but principally found expression of her artistic inclinations in promoting Belgium’s virtuoso violinist of the day, composer and conductor Eugène-Auguste Ysaye. Following his death, in 1936 she founded what was initially called a memorial competition in his honor; this later was renamed and given the name by which we know the competition today.
From its very founding, the Queen Elisabeth Musical Competition has had a close relationship with the Russian school of music making. In 1937, the first year of the violin competition, the top prize went to David Oistrakh. Later first prize winners in violin from the Soviet Union/Russia who made worldwide careers include Leonid Kogan (1951), Philippe Hirschhorn (1967) and Vadim Repin (1989).
In piano, the top prize went to Emil Gilels during the first year of the competition (1938). Later Russian winners include Vladimir Ashkenazy (1956), Evgeny Mogilevsky (1964) and Andrei Nikolsky (1987).
Of course, with the passage of time, and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, deep depression in Russia during the 1990s and globalization of music studies and concertizing ever since, the Russian school is now just one of several major currents that we see on the stage of the Competition.
I wish to stress that the royal patronage of the Competition has been continued from the death of Queen Elisabeth in 1965 up to the present day, when Queen Mathilde is the lead personality from the monarchy whom we see in the royal box during performances in the final rounds, often accompanied by her children. More to the point, as we consider why and how the Competition’s administration could make the remarkable statement I cited above, the royal family has been involved in this Competition in an intensely personal manner, not just in a formal, protocol sense.
For several decades, King Baudouin’s spouse and then widow Fabiola brought her personality and commitment to the Competition. She was especially moved by the genius of the Russian-Latvian-Jewish laureate of 1967, Philippe Hirschhorn, and remained a family friend until his untimely death at age 50, then continued to invite his widow to the palace from time to time until her own passing. I know of her generosity and solicitude first hand, since Philippe was also a close friend of our family in the 1990s.
My point in sharing these details is the following: royal patronage sets the Queen Elisabeth Musical Competition apart from the likes of the Metropolitan Opera or the Munich Philharmonic. It is much better insulated from day to day politics than other cultural institutions in Belgium as well, dependent as they are on state funds to survive.
As a born American, I was till my arrival in Belgium instinctively unsympathetic to hereditary aristocracies and to monarchs. However, when the cause of the anciens régimes was set against bourgeois democracies in the 18th century, defenders of monarchies argued the case of the hereditary head of state standing above day to day politics and not swayed by mob rule, not subject to the venality of the money changers in the temple. Regrettably, those arguments comes back to haunt us today.
As one further remark on the enduring value of this monarchy in contemporary life of Belgium, I point to another institution which has the designation “royal” in its name: Le Cercle Royal Gaulois Artistique & Littéraire of which I am proudly a member. I say “proudly” not so much because of the social prestige of this 175 year old establishment, but because this gentlemen’s club is an oasis of tolerance, free speech and free thinking in our modern age of polarization and dumbing-down. Surely it is not beside the point that so many of the members are in fact loyal monarchists, while a good many are actually in the service of the ruling house. The Cercle may be situated just across the street from the Belgian parliament, and the deputies may be lunchtime guests of the club’s restaurant, but in terms of tolerance and broad thinking these institutions are worlds apart.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022