The Ukraine Triptych and February 24th
Anyone who thinks that February 24, 2022 is a small thing, a local event, is naïve. One must keep this dimension clearly in mind. A nuclear power, the successor state to the USSR, the largest country in the world, Russia, which has been systematically imperialist for centuries and believes it must impose its concept of orthodoxy on the world, a country which has never broken with the Stalinist repression that has existed since the October Revolution committed to world conquest, attacks a neighboring state to destroy it, expel the people and annex the territory. Not even the USSR dared to do that since Yalta. No state at all, apart from Iraq against Kuwait, had such a destructive war of aggression in mind for decades. There are things that should not exist, and when they do exist, everything changes. Putin’s attack order is one such thing. A point of no return.
However, this war is not only aimed at Ukraine, but also at other countries such as Moldova, Georgia and perhaps also NATO territory. Putin and his ideologues are aiming for a Eurasian orthodoxy stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, while they believe the West is limited to North America and perhaps the British Isles. In doing so, he questions the cultural identity of all EU countries. Who since Hitler had such far-reaching geopolitical ambitions?
This scope allows a world-historical reflection. Would it be possible for the European culture of the Renaissance, of science, freedom of thought, the differentiation of modern society, human rights, democracy, the rule of law, peaceful and tolerant coexistence, great philosophy and equally great art, to simply disappear, die? There are strong historical-philosophical reasons that speak against it. One is that open, free societies are more productive, richer and therefore more capable of action. And it is not to be seen that the Western world, like perhaps the Roman Empire in its later stages, would perish of its own decadence. In the end, freedom and truth always win. Even if the price is sometimes horrendously high, for example during the Second World War.
This summer I went on an educational trip through the Baltic States and Finland. Everywhere protests against Russia and signs of solidarity, blue and yellow flags everywhere, ordered by the state in the Baltic States. If you talk to people, you hear about deportations, wars and ethnic cleansing by the Russians and former Soviets. One only has to visit the occupation museums in Vilnius or Riga to understand that these four countries will never again allow their freedom to be contested, just as the Ukrainians do. An ethnographic map from around 1900 in the National Museum in Vilnius shows the large settlement area of the Ukrainians, who are given this name and are not simply called Little Russians.
Anyone who believes that without weapons, without resistance, without sanctions and instead with mere talks one can fend off Putin is naïve. Anyone who has grappled with the whole misery of the Holocaust knows that the radical evil that exists can only be defeated by its annihilation. Unfortunately that is how it is. The good life that Germany in particular has settled into since 1990 is over. But every crisis is the beginning of a learning process. You just have to face it fearlessly. When I was in Warsaw in July to systematically photograph the two Jewish cemeteries, the war could be felt everywhere: flags, posters, young people collecting donations, display boards showing the course of the war in a central square. Poles, Baltics, Finns, Georgians, Moldovans and others have known of Putin’s blatant threats for years. The next western country, Germany, must now leave its comfort zone. Ironically, it is the Greens, above all the Foreign Minister, who formulate this most clearly.
Composers of art music have a hard time reacting to current political events. They have the musical means and they have longer lead times. Nothing came to my mind after 9/11, although it was actually time to look for an answer artistically. This year it was different. Since February 24, I have been reading many newspapers several times a day, following public discussions and reading books on the subject. One begins to concern oneself with energy policy, weapons technology, war technology, secret services, actually everything that intellectuals tend to avoid if not detest. But since August 2021 at the latest, with the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, it has been clear that classic intellectuals such as Hartmut Rosa or Harald Welzer have lost their working basis and that the old guard such as Alice Schwarzer and Jürgen Habermas are falling out of time. Because now is the hour of realpolitik.
When Putin threatened again in April with the atomic bomb, I cried out: »I’ve had enough!« I had to do something. But what? Well, the composer that I am has to compose. My Ukraine triptych for orchestra and three soloists in three movements was ready in half an hour. The first sentence is called »Holodomor«, in English: starvation; it was Stalin’s starvation of Ukraine in 1932; my father told me about it when I was a child. The movement is for (phonetically almost non-singing) soprano. The second movement is called »The Jewish Cemetery of Warsaw« (which I discovered in 2012 and have been planning to translate into musical stelae ever since) and is for cimbalom. The third movement revolves around the atomic bomb, which cannot be called that, hence the title »Kubrick’s Bomb« after his film »Dr. Strange. Or: How I learned to love the bomb«. Here the solo is a 5-string electric bass guitar. Duration: 31 minutes.
Luigi Gaggero is an Italian cimbalist, professor of this instrument in Strasbourg and director of a contemporary music ensemble in Kyiv, who performed my music there years ago. It was news to me that he now also conducts the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra. A stroke of luck. Because he and the orchestra are really looking forward to the piece. They own it – initially – and the Ukraine; from 2024 it can play the world. This order must be. The work unfolds three orchestral sounds that are relatively homogeneous in themselves. No dialectics, no polyphony, no exposed solo voices. Three sounds with three clear ones – yes, what should you call it? Embassies? Testify? Insights? Experiences?
What the Balts and Finns say, that they are independent cultures/languages/peoples/countries that live freely within their own borders and do not want to be told by foreign powers for centuries that they do not actually exist, the Ukrainians also say the same. It would be very short-sighted to say that Ukraine has only existed for 30 years or since the Maidan revolution. No, they have been around for a thousand years. I am not a national composer, and certainly not for a foreign country. Ukraine’s future lies in Europe, the free Europe whose anthem was composed by Beethoven, a German composer with cosmopolitan intentions. This is how I compose my Ukraine Triptych, a humble contribution to Peace/Truth/Freedom and dedicate it to the free Ukrainian people.
Potsdam, October 2022