Armenian genocide enters the concert hall

Armenian genocide enters the concert hall


norman lebrecht

April 18, 2010

The line between music and politics is becoming ever more blurred. Here’s the text of a talk I gave on BBC Radio 3 Music matters yesterday. You can hear it here for a week.




The international Cologne Triennale opens next weekend with the world premiere of a cello concerto. Nothing remarkable about that. The conductor who commissioned it is Semyon Bychkov, newly decorated with a BBC Music magazine award, the soloist is Jan Vogler and the composer is Tigran Mansurian, a contemplative Armenian whose work has been extensively championed by the Hilliard Ensemble, among others.


The significant element in this performance is, however, its date – April 24th, a day that Armenians the world over mark as the start of the Turkish massacres in 1915 that wiped out more than a million of their people. The concert is, in other words, a potentially combustible political event.


Turkey does not like to be reminded of its first world war record and is presently in a tense standoff with the United States where Congress is moving to designate the 1915 slaughter as an act of genocide. The sensitivity of feelings on all sides cannot be underestimated.


Jan Vogler told me this week that the composer Mansurian, faced with a premiere on April 24th, could not avoid telling in his concerto the story of an Armenian family during those terrible years. The concerto, he acknowledges, is a protest piece. The question this triggers in my mind is whether the concert hall is the right place for it.


A couple of week ago you may have heard – or heard about – a handful of agitators who barracked a Jerusalem Quartet recital in the Wigmore Hall. It hardly mattered that members of the quartet are in constant dialogue with Palestinians, or that the Mozart and Ravel they played had no bearing on the Middle East conflict. What the protestors did was to seize the opportunity of a live broadcast to make a political point in the concert hall – and most people felt that what they did was inappropriate, disproportionate and more than a little self-seeking. Radio 3 took the recital off the air and broadcast an edited repeat.


Now if that kind of protest is unacceptable – and I would argue that it always is in a concert hall, no matter how just the cause – why is it permissible, or even desirable, to ventilate hotly contested historical issues from the concert stage itself? Tigran Mansurian is not the first to do so. Kryzsztof Penderecki, in his Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima – later sampled by the Manic Street Preachers in a pop single – seemed to be attacking the excessiveness of the American nuclear strike on Japan in 1945 – a matter that would be disputed by most Americans.


Dmitri Shostakovich, in his Babi Yar Symphony, used a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko to highlight the complicity of Soviet citizens and attitudes in the Nazi massacres of Jewish communities – an issue so provocative that the Soviet government went to great efforts to have the symphony suppressed.


This is not to say that historic atrocities should not be commemorated in music. Works like Arnold Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw and John Adams’s 9/11 tribute, On the Transmigration of Souls, allow us to internalise and individualise mass tragedies, drawing out emotions that we otherwise hold in check.


It is when music attempts to deal with one side of a political event that the question of undue influence arises. The concert hall should not have to be as neutral as the BBC in election month or a eunuch in the pasha’s harem. But some care needs to be taken to prevent it being used for political advantage. Music lovers have pretty good propaganda detectors and easily laughed off such Sixties exhortations as Hans Werner Henze’s anti-police orchestral piece, Essay on Pigs, and Cornelius Cardew’s Vietnam Sonata. Nevertheless, what role politics should play in the concert hall remains undefined and I’d be interested to hear your views on the messageboard.


Meantime, the Tigran Mansurian concerto will receive an excellent world premiere in Germany. Jan Vogler insists it reminds him of Schumann and there’s every likelihood that he’ll take it on tour. It will make headlines in at least three countries, some diplomats may be called home and the delicate line between music and politics will be blurred, yielding once again rather more heat than light.





  • Maral says:

    If the concerto is indeed written as a protest piece, then it makes sense to give the audience some context as to why and a story about an Armenian family’s struggle during the genocide seems appropriate. Music is used to tell stories and evoke emotion and just because the story happens to be political or controversial, does not mean that the story shouldn’t be shared with the audience. It sounds like censorship to me, otherwise. While folks attending concerts aren’t necessarily attending to hear some sort of political message, that doesn’t mean that the composer should hold back telling the story about why s/he composed the piece for the audience to have more insight.

  • N. Macura says:

    Your statements regarding Penderecki’s Threnody seem rather tendentious, particularly since they are not accompanied by any supporting evidence.
    1.) Did Penderecki really intend the piece to be a commentary on the “excessiveness of the American nuclear strike on Japan” or is that someone else’s interpretation? If the former, where’s the proof? If the latter, what is the basis of that interpretation?
    2.) How do you know that “the matter would be disputed by most Americans”? I am an American who happens to think that it was wrong to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I know plenty of other Americans who share this opinion. Maybe we’re in the minority, maybe not. Without some hard evidence, it’s impossible to know for sure.
    Ultimately, I fail to see how you can question the merit of Penderecki’s Threnody while praising Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, considering that both works allude to events in which many innocent people died.