Great conductors still collaborate with great dictators

Great conductors still collaborate with great dictators


norman lebrecht

October 28, 2016

In my new essay for Standpoint magazine, I assess the present strategies of Valery Gergiev and Gustavo Dudamel in the context of the past lives of Willem Mengelberg and Wilhelm Furtwängler.


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.

Read the full essay here.


putin gergiev


  • Stephen says:

    Despite what Charles Windsor has said, Putin has a very long way to go before he catches up with Hitler. I think there is a failure of many in the West to look at a situation from a Russian point of view and one doesn’t have to look far to find a former Prime Minister who was thought by many to have acted correctly at the time but is now widely considered to have committed war crimes.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The medalling of artists is a well-thought-out strategy of the Russian regime to counter the mistakes the West is prone to make again and again. Eastern Ukraine – which is a good showcase of Putin’s intentions – always had a strong Russian orientation, mentally, culturally and especially economically. I don’t understand why they don’t let the people choose for themselves and if they – in the east – want to become part of Russia or an independend Russian satelite nation, why not? The same goes for the Krim. The way Russia has simply let violence cast the marbles, is inexcusable, but it is, after all, not a civilized nation, so that should not be surprising. The way Russia has pushed its interest is inexcusable but its motivations are, in themselves, reasonable, as is its suspicion against Ukraine’s regime. The EU’s policies where much too theoretical and ignorant of shimmering local problems, and their superficial idealism to have the Ukraine embrace the EU without taking these problems into account, was a hughe mistake. Artists like Gergiev apparently feel defensive about their country and their patriotism dictates support for any attempt to bolster Russian ‘force’, and all this is fuelled by deep-seated inferiority complexes for which there are numerous good reasons. They (the Russian artists) should know better about what the Russian regime is fostering all around them.

    • Hernan says:

      Calling Venezuela and Russia dictatorships is untrue. Both Putin and Maduro were elected; moreover, the internal enemies of both government receive vast sums of money to engage in “regime change”. In the case of Venezuela, there is a counter revolution financed mainly by the United States through the US Congress’ ‘National Endowment for Democracy’. Furthermore, there is an active and vigorous sabotage of the economy by slowdown in production causing shortages and outright smuggling of food and consumer goods to Colombia. Furthermore, the US/Saudi Arabia plummeting of the oil prices is an essential part of this economic warfare imposed on Venezuela and Russia.
      It is sad that you have chosen to side with the foreign backed intervention in oil rich Venezuela. You reduce yourself to being a propagandist of the United States.

  • debussyste says:

    Good essay but more convincing concerning Gergiev than concerning Dudamel.

    • M2N2K says:

      This is not surprising: there are significant differences between the two. The situation is much more nuanced in GD’s case than it is in a very clear VG’s.

  • L.F. says:

    This summer we had Gergiev here in Switzerland with his Marinsky-Orchestra: The power and brilliance of this band was just overwhelming. Gerviev is not finished.

    Moreover its grossly unfair and inappropriate to compare Putins Russia to Hitlers Germany. The Russian involvment and bombardments in Syria and Ukraine may be distasteful, but they are dwarfed by their numerous counterparts of Western bombardments and involvments in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Iran, Jemen etc. whose disastrous results are camouflaged by bigotry and ridiculous PC-speak about “freedom” and “democracy”.

    If Gergiev tries to make culture survive in Russia with the means he has, are we really in a position to damn him?

    • Neil van der Linden says:

      Most rulers in the world are tainted and artists should not affiliate themselves too much with them, even though the arts in most countries, in the West and elsewhere, are on the payroll of their states. But also regarding the states one should not too easily jump into black and white divisions. Putin’s reputation and that of the Venezuelan regime are tainted, but but few other regimes in the world come clean. While Russian is supporting Al Assad, by itself not a ruler who is much less legitimate than other dictators, some of whom are supported by the USA for instance. And the Syrian uprising was partly provoked by ultraorthodox Gulf factions, condoned, if not supported by the US. And for sure artists would love to get enamoured with those Western leaders who are responsible for this.
      In these days the US and Canada are sealing billions of dollars ars deals with Saudi-Arabia, a country where,… well you know. Recently the US gave its biggest financial support to Israel, a country that on a daily basis commits injustices and crimes as part of its occupation. But we see few artists distancing themselves from all this.
      And what about the past. The British empire has a terrible record regarding colonialist suppression. Yet we love Elgar who composed Land of Hope and Glory to honour Britain. Etcetera.
      Which does not mean that I do not think that Gergiev is an opportunist.
      Dudamel is somewhat different. The Venezuelan government pays for El Sistema, something that every music lover elsewhere would be jealous of. And Dudamel has almost every chance he got and all that he learned to thank to El Sistema. Moreover Dudamel is more a Chavez man than one of the current government. And Chavez was truly popular with many Venezuelans. In the end he made a mess of things, including anointing this successor. But both Chavez and his successor are not Hitlers, and neither is Putin.
      Meanwhile even the relations between Mengelberg and Furtwangler and the Nazis were not one-dimensional or one-directional

      • Anmarie says:

        Anti-Semitic comments are always a delight.

        • Neil van der Linden says:

          Not for me though, but thank God I did not see any of them.
          I would also hate to see a discussion in which several countries in the Middle-East are mentioned and weighed towards each other turning into the usual erroneous accusation of antisemitism.

        • Peter says:

          Actually it’s a delight to have no such comments, as in the post you commented on. Are you sure you have reacted to the right blog? Where do you see anti-semitic comments?

          • nvdl Linden, Neil van der says:

            I reacted to Anmarie’s comment on my comment.

          • Gerhard says:

            Didn’t you see that Neil van der Linden made a critical remark about the politics of Israel somewhere above? This is by definition blatant antisemitism, and to recognize this and call out is a basic prerequisite for any meaningful discourse. This elegant technique gives you an albeit slim chance to silence the critic altogether, but more importantly it saves you a lot of unnecessary thinking for yourself, which could lead to unexpected and confusing results. And as a bonus it gives you a well deserved feeling of moral superiority. Being antisemitic is bad, of course, so if you can call someone else an anti-semite, it is proof that you yourself are good, right? I’m surprised that you apparently don’t know this. You must be new to this site. Welcome!

          • John Borstlap says:

            To Gerhard: criticizing Israeli politics is not by definition antisemitic. vdLinden merely brought a number of perfectly reasonable nuances to the subject and that is a real contribution. The dependence of art on patronage is a complex and difficult theme with very different vatiations. History teaches us that artists can transcend the requirements of patrons, and make the best of it, and where ethical boundaries are reached, this always presents very difficult conflicts of conscience. But often it is not too bad: Prince Lobkowitz was rather loose in his morals concerning the fairer sex, but he contributed considerably to Beethoven’s livelihood and thus helped B’s oeuvre’s realisation. The Thomas church’s management often made Bach’s functioning difficult but we have to thank them for many cantatas. Ludwig II of Bavaria seriously neglected his job but he saved Wagner from bankruptcy. Pope Julius II and Leo X bullied Michelangelo into building St Peter’s and painting the Sixtine Chapel, against his will, but… etc. etc.

  • Daniel F. says:

    Not only are current Russia and current Vene+uela very different kinds of regimes from that of Hitler’s Germany, the artistic merits of Gergiev and Dudamel as compared with those of Mengelberg and Furtwangler are not even on the same planet. The latter two were giants! Gergiev is above average in stature and Dudamel is the sort of well-marketed musician of whom critics on the take will be saying 20 years from now: “he’s still growing”. I’d have to say the analogy is a huge stretch all the way around.

  • matteo says: