Political Misconduct

From Mengelberg and Furtwängler to Gergiev and Dudamel, conductors have been exploited by despots

Norman Lebrecht

The life of Willem Mengelberg, formative conductor of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw orchestra and founder of its Mahler tradition, has finally been published. The second volume of a biography by Frits Zwart has appeared in Holland 65 years after the conductor’s death, and to very little attention. It was all such a long time ago, shrug the Dutch. Let the old master rest on his withered laurels.

Mengelberg was banned from conducting in 1945 for hobnobbing with Holland’s Nazi rulers and, specifically, for an interview he gave to the Völkischer Beobachter in 1940, saying he had drunk a glass of champagne the day his country capitulated to the Germans. You can see why the Dutch don’t like to be reminded of this pivotal figure in their music history and why the rest of the world has consigned this brilliant, often contrarian interpreter to the margins of public memory.

Nevertheless, Mengelberg demands to be remembered, more perhaps now than ever. He was a prototype music director who bowed to the requirements of an evil regime. If you thought that doesn’t happen any more, look now at Russia and Venezuela and you will see history doubling back on its tracks, as if nothing has registered from the recent past, nothing was learned.

Mengelberg’s defence was that he was German by heritage and he preferred German culture to Dutch provincialism. Uninterested in the world beyond his scores, all he wanted to do was carry on making music in an exemplary concert hall, oblivious to the murder of some of his musicians by the occupation government. He could not be held accountable, he argued, for the Nazis being Nazis. He just carried on doing his job regardless of the noises outside.

He represents one modus vivendi for a powerful music director in a totalitarian state. The other is Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose cover story, forensically exposed in Ronald Harwood’s play Taking Sides, was rooted in a profound, perhaps overdeveloped, sense of personal responsibility. Furtwängler maintained that his duty between 1933 and 1945 was to uphold the highest level of German civilisation as comfort and shelter for a troubled nation, preserving the best of what was German for a post-Hitler renewal. Unlike Mengelberg, Furtwängler risked his position to extricate a number of people from concentration camps and help them flee the country. He did not suppress his conscience. He carried on doing his job, aware of all that was going on around him — and in spite of it, like the tragic curator of antiquities who stayed in Palmyra when the Isis desecrators rode in.

Both of these survival strategies were flawed. Mengelberg’s lacked conscience. Furtwängler refused to recognise that his presence at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra reinforced Adolf Hitler’s sense of cultural destiny. Both conductors served the devil and both got off lightly, neither spending a night at risk or in jail. (The Palmyra curator, Khalid al-Assad, was beheaded for his heroism.)

Fast forward to present times, different places. The Venezuelan government subjects its citizens to starvation and mob rule. It is represented on the world stage by a conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. The Russian state, headed by Vladimir Putin, has invaded Ukraine and commits war crimes in Syria. It can call on the conductor Valery Gergiev to justify its actions by affirming cultural superiority. There are obvious parallels to past collaborationists.

In the case of Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and one of the most exhilarating talents on the world stage, there are several shades of grey to be taken into account. A boyhood protégé of the former government minister José Antonio Abreu, Dudamel was barely 18 when the klepto-socialist Hugo Chávez came to power, imposing “revolutionary” rule on his country. Chávez had one saving grace: he embraced Abreu’s Sistema, praising its programme for teaching musical instruments to deprived children as proof of his regime’s commitment to abolish poverty. Dudamel believed what Abreu told him and, as he began to conquer world orchestras, let himself be used as a poster-boy for the regime. At Chávez’s funeral in March 2013, he wept openly.

Since then, he has avoided criticism of the failing Maduro government, not least because his family still lives in Venezuela. Dudamel, now 35, is caught between a rock and a hard place. He recently expressed the hope that El Sistema might somehow help Venezuela recover from its present plight, possibly a coded hint for post-regime realities: “I work every day to ensure that once Venezuela moves beyond this current crisis,” he told President Obama, “El Sistema will continue to rise and empower those who otherwise would have no dreams.” His vision sounds eerily resonant of Furtwängler’s faith that symphonic music could renew the German nation after Hitler.

For Valery Gergiev, there are fewer justifications. A rare conducting talent who made the Mariinsky Theatre shine in the post-Soviet rubble, he has been progressively compromised by his friendship with Vladimir Putin, a connection that goes back to 1992 when Putin was deputy mayor of St Petersburg and spent his nights at the theatre. Gergiev, now 63, utilised Putin’s fondness for the arts to expand his own domains from St Petersburg out to the Primorsky Opera on the Pacific coast. Putin, in return, uses Gergiev as an apologist for state atrocities, sending him with a live-streamed orchestra to celebrate the Russian “liberation” of Palmyra. Gergiev, who maintains a Western job as music director of the Munich Philharmonic, has been reduced to recycling Soviet apologetics in his interviews, claiming that the West will never understand Russia and should not apply its hypocritical ethics to an existential crisis.

Gergiev has become unrecognisable from the internationalist I knew in the 1990s, the idealist who believed in art and the power of ideas. His performances have become uninteresting, often unrehearsed. His talent factory has dried up; Anna Netrebko is the Mariinsky’s last star. This is a maestro who mortgaged his soul. Putin turns to Gergiev for cultural vindication and Gergiev loyally obliges with a benediction. Collaboration is alive and well in the 21st century.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"