On the morning of August 21, 1968, Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Wenceslas Square, in Prague, completing an overnight Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubček, the liberal-minded leader of the Czech government, was detained and flown to Moscow. That evening, in London, the U.S.S.R. State Symphony, under the direction of Yevgeny Svetlanov, gave a concert at Royal Albert Hall, as part of the BBC Proms. Shouts of protest were heard at the outset of each work on the program. Mstislav Rostropovich, who was to leave the Soviet Union six years later, broke into tears as he played Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, a landmark of Czech music. The second half of the concert was given over to Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, a monumental oration by the living titan of Soviet composers. Noise from the audience carried over into the first bars of the work; then silence fell. Fifty minutes later, a roar of applause followed the frenzied final bars of the symphony.
Such scenes were fairly routine in classical music through most of the twentieth century, as one country or another took its turn in the role of arch-villain on the international stage. Today, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has created a cultural panic of a kind that has not been seen in generations. Several performers with strong ties to Vladimir Putin—Valery Gergiev, Anna Netrebko, Denis Matsuev—have seen their careers in Europe and America evaporate. In a few isolated cases, classic Russian works have been pulled from programs. At the beginning of March, the Polish National Opera called off a staging of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” that had been scheduled for the spring. A few days later, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” and his Second Symphony were dropped from a concert by the Cardiff Philharmonic—a decision that elicited worldwide mockery on social media.
No protests materialized the other night when the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under the direction of Ludovic Morlot, presented a mostly Russian program at Disney Hall: Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Metacosmos,” Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, and the Shostakovich Tenth. Nor did the orchestra take the step of introducing the concert with a rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem, as many other ensembles have lately done. Issuing no apologies or explanations, the orchestra trusted its audience to grapple with two composers whose lives in Stalinist Russia were immensely fraught and whose relationship with whatever is meant by Russianness was complex. This seemed the right approach.
A few commentators have tried to cast the boycotting of Russian composers and musicians as so-called cancel culture run amok. The argument shows farcical ignorance of more than a century of cultural history. During the First World War, when anti-German paranoia swept across America, the Met stopped presenting not only the obvious Wagner but also Mozart, who had been a subject of the Holy Roman Empire. When the next war came, organizations took a …….