By Fred A. Reed
The conflict in Ukraine has proved fertile in paradox, rich in the unusual, and prodigious in the proliferation of the bizarre and the curious.
Overlook for a moment the long-standing historical reasons for Russia’s decision to attack the Ukrainian state and the tormented past of the region itself, called by some the ‘blood-lands’ that encompass what are now the
Ukraine, Poland, the former Prussia, Belarus and large sections of western Russia. It was over these lands that the fiercest battles of WWs I and II were fought, and in these lands that millions of women and men died.
Let us instead scrutinize the rather more intimate though sordid story of two PMCs (Private Military Companies) whose names evoke two of the most revered figures in the Western musical canon: Richard Wagner and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Private Military Companies—essentially soldiers of fortune, rebels with or most probably without a cause—have gained prominence ever since the American group Blackwater was formed to help American forces prosecute the invasion, occupation and grand larceny of Iraq. It should not be confused with the wealth management mega-conglomerate (also heavily invested in Ukraine) BlackRock. Along the way, its members carried out massacres, atrocities, and levelled entire cities in the existential battle against “terrorism.”
The Wagner Group was set up in the early 2000s to promote Russian interests abroad under the umbrella of ‘plausible deniability,’ rather on the Blackwater model. So successful has it been in West Africa that French influence in what was its former colonial backyard has all but collapsed, leaving the Quay d’Orsay to fume impotently.
An extensive Wikipedia entry on the Wagner Group links it to Russian neo-fascists who recognized in Wagner’s music the kind of ideological bias that would appeal to people like themselves. But Wagner was Hitler’s favourite composer and author of an essay entitled Judaism in Music, which asserted that Jews—Felix Mendelsohn in particular—were incapable of creating great music. Understood: the kind of music he wrote, which resuscitated the ancient German myths and legends later accompanied the ceremonial entrances of Nazi dignitaries and galvanized the populace at torch-lit rallies.
Sounds unlikely? You might ask: are Russian proto-fascists now fighting the real thing in Ukraine? Some have expressed moderate to serious doubts, primarily about the reliability of the Wikipedia entry cited above.
In all probability—a phrase I write with caution—the Russian Wagnerians saw in their namesake’s music the kind of martial impulse they thought appropriate to their tasks.
After all, the Wagner Group’s motto is “Surrender or Die.”
But along came the 2014 Maidan coup d’État and the de facto entry of Ukraine into NATO. AS a result, the current Russian Special Military Operation is being carried out with the objective of de-Nazifying the current Ukrainian state, whose armed forces and security apparatus actually shelter elements that could only be considered as Nazis, right down to the insignias that emblazon their shoulders.
So much, then, for Wagner PMC.
But what are we to make of the American PMC, Mozart Group, which has been disbanded as rapidly as it was established? Was it to be another variation on the White Helmets theme, a group that operates only among democratic rebels in search of an Oscar?
The group’s PR claimed that its title was ‘ironic,’ a reference to another German (Austrian, actually, as ‘Germany’ did not yet exist) composer. Yet the juxtaposition of the two—Mozart and Wagner—has proved itself dire in every respect. And must—thankfully—be credited as the real and ultimate reason of the latter’s dissolution not long after it was established.
Nothing that Mozart wrote in his short and intensely creative life could be seen as martial, glorifying war or aggression. No ancient Germanic legends are set to music, no German race extolled, no Rhine Maidens and Master Singers, nothing that could possibly have accompanied newsreel footage of Hitler as he enters the exhibition hall where the art on display consists of portraits of himself.
Quite like listening to Wagner, whose music is essentially an exercise in self-glorification: the summit of the Romantic Movement that placed total emphasis on the tormented soul of the composer.
Not so Mozart, whose music describes not his emotions, but evokes the listener’s own experience, her or his joys and sorrows, often simultaneously.
Mozart ridiculed war and the military virtues. The two boastful officers in Cosi fan Tutte march off to the roll of snare drums only and hymns to ‘la bella vita militar’ to ‘reappear’ as Albanian nobles who, on a wager, seduce their former lady loves into exchanging suitors. In the end the confusion is overcome, and the wayward ‘officers’ join the other members of the cast in singing: “That’s the way they all (women) are”, kiss and make up. No hard feelings; just abundant confusion as the men are also made to look like the fools they are.
Similarly, in the Marriage of Figaro, the story-line deals with the issue of the nobility’s “first night right” to enjoy the favours of female servants when they marry: a practice denounced by Beaumarchais in the drama that inspired Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. As the story unfolds at high speed and with great complexity the Count is forced by circumstances to eat humble pie, and pleads with his wife, the Countess, for forgiveness, which she grants.
As does Mozart, in every work where the powerful can and do exercise the option of mercy and pardon.
Such were the composer’s qualities that Mozart PMC could not square its violent activity with its namesake’s profound and all-consuming sense of mercy and pardon. Irony, its founders may well have concluded, would not be enough—ideologically speaking—to keep their outfit afloat. What self-respecting mercenary or hired killer could fight under the banner of a man of peace and forgiveness who loved to gamble and play cards, who wrote melodies that demand only to be sung or whistled?
Nietzsche, though he thought little of Wagner, shared with the composer a taste for Will to Power. But where the philosopher theorized the concept, Wagner’s most notorious admirer transformed it into a Code of Conduct to be applied to recalcitrant populations or undesired ethnic or religious groups.
Such Will percolates to this day through recent history. At least to this observer of recent history, thanks to ample consultation of films from the Mosfilm archives. And now, as German tanks are once more set to roll eastward into Ukraine, the prospect should incite the Russian founders of Wagner PMC to rethink their namesake.
Respectfully—as always—I suggest Tchaikovsky, who not only set Pushkin’s Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin to music as eponymous operas, but also wrote the soul-stirring 1812 Overture that commemorates the battle of Borodino and Kutuzov’s defeat of the French invaders.