Bach in Palmyra: Russia’s Surprise Concert in the Ancient Syrian City

The surprise concert by Russia’s greatest orchestra from the Mariinsky Theater of St. Petersburg that took place two weeks ago in the Roman amphitheater in Palmyra, Syria was staged as a grand gesture proclaiming an important symbolic victory of civilization over what the ensemble’s conductor Valery Gergiev called “the barbarians.” Rather than blowing the stunning venue to smithereens as they had other antiquities in the ancient city, ISIL had also used the amphitheater for its own symbolic purposes—the ghastly mass executions of captured Syrian soldiers.

But as musicians should know better than anyone, symbols are difficult, even impossible things to keep under control. They have a way of revolting against their would-be masters. Nowhere is this more apparent than in art and performance. There is nothing more uplifting than music—or more destabilizing. Even the notes and signs on the page have a way of breaking free and making their own meanings, ones often unintended by the composer.

The niches, pediments and columns of the sumptuous backdrop from the second century were meant by the Russians to project a vision of ordered beauty and “Western” values yet could just as easily have summoned images of Romans feeding Christians to the lions back in the Coliseum.

Likewise, the musicians’ black uniforms presented an austere, almost malevolent sight, conjuring thoughts of the darkly clad ISIL fanatics who had until recently run the show in Palmyra. Such is the power of tradition: a symphony orchestra wears black unless its members don their white jackets for pop concerts. The “Prayer for Palmyra” was not a pop concert. The Mariinsky musicians looked like special forces sent for a commando cultural strike in the Syrian desert, wielding their instruments as weapons, Gergiev marked as there commander by the white baseball cap that was a vital shield from the scorching sun.

Only a detail from the full Mariinsky corps was dispatched to Palmyra for this action. It was a contingent just large enough to conclude the concert with Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, a piece chosen, as Gergiev also pointedly noted, to demonstrate a respect for history that differentiates the anti-terrorists from the terrorists. Thus the classical architecture mirrored the Russian composer’s classical homage. In fact, both place and piece are neo-classical: the amphitheater is largely reconstructed from the ruins, just as the Prokofiev symphony, one of his most popular pieces, is itself a kind of historical reconstruction enlivened by fantasy. Many of the musicians of this elite corps of the orchestra looked understandably beleaguered by the heat and also nervous about playing in a war zone. They were hardly braced by the sprightly humor evanescing from Prokofiev’s flirty retrospect.

Seen in the historical terms Gergiev so frequently invoked, these comparisons between orchestral forces and military units are not merely figurative. The rise of the orchestra as a central European institution in the seventeenth century coincided, indeed was inextricably linked to, the formation of autocratic regimes across the continent. For the first time since the Roman Empire, states gathered massive standing armies while simultaneously establishing orchestras: the machinery of a music and military were both vital weapons in a ruler’s arsenal. Louis XIV’s band—the king’s twenty-four violins (Les Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi) —was famed for its discipline. The German rulers he and his successors formed alliances with and fought against emulated the Sun King in dress, language, manners and cultural refinements. Monarchs such as August the Strong in Dresden and Frederick the Great in Berlin built their own world-class armies and orchestras on parallel structures of command and obedience.

When the English traveler Charles Burney, himself a sometime orchestral musician who had fought under the stern musical command of Thomas Arne (composer of “Rule Britannia”) and Handel (an unparalleled master of musical saber-rattling and author of one of the greatest hits of the British Army, the March in Scipio) arrived in Mannheim in the summer of 1772 while on his tour of the German states, he remarked to his published diary: “The first thing I heard was military music.” When he attended a performance by the music- and military-loving Elector Palatine’s orchestra a few days later at his residence in Schwetzingen, Burney famously described the ensemble as “an army of generals, equally fit to plan a battle, as to fight it.”

It is no coincidence that the age of the orchestra that continues to do this day has been a period both of symphonic masterpieces and nearly uninterrupted war—one of cataclysm not concord. In spite of Gergiev’s assertion that the Mariinsky concert should encourage “peace and unity,” the institution of the orchestra has over its three-and-half-centuries of existence been as much a force for division and hostility as it has been for brotherly—and more recently, sisterly—love. However much his rhetoric appeals to transcendent values, Gergiev himself is a musico-military asset; in 2014 he joined other cultural figures in signing an open letter in support of Russian annexation of the Ukraine. Leading the Palmyra cultural campaign similarly demonstrates support for Russian airstrikes in Syria.

It was necessary to the rituals of triumph that Vladimir Putin be beamed in from Moscow onto a screen stage-left behind the orchestra. He wore a dark suit and tie, the modern dress of statecraft, but I was sorry he missed the opportunity for something more theatrical like the purple mantle of a Roman Emperor and a laurel crown. The Russian President spoke of a “common” victory and of the larger project of “our entire civilization to ride itself from this terrible evil of international terrorism.” But there was no mistaking that while the speeches embraced humanity, the music struck a mighty blow for Mother Russia. The musicians, the repertoire, and the military advisers flanking the orchestra were all Russian.

The exception to this hegemony was the opening number: J. S. Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita no. 2 in D minor for solo violin, a work Gergiev said “symbolizes the greatness of the human spirit.” Bach is often drafted into service as the composer whose music transcends all difference. His works are quite literally universal: pieces by Bach make up three of the twenty-five tracks transcribed on the Voyager spacecraft’s Golden LP launched from Cape Canaveral in 1977 and since 2012 hurtling through interstellar space.

Bach even gets the disc’s opening tune—the first movement of the second Brandenburg Concerto. Yet this work, too, pulls us inexorably back towards the black hole of European militarism. The dedicatee, the Margrave of Brandenburg, was a leading Prussian general. Not surprisingly the swashbuckling trumpet of Bach’s concerto recalls the prince’s two greatest loves: battle and the hunt. As for Bach himself, he could hardly have been ecumenically minded, and was in any case an ardent monarchist. He also led the choristers in his charge in musical performances at Leipzig’s ghastly public executions, as was pointed out and reflected on by Bach scholar Peter Williams, memorialized in this space two weeks ago. Performing Bach’s music in Palmyra can bring with it unwanted associations for the tub-thumpers of civilization.

Still, the solo violin might well be seen to embody an independence and freedom opposed to the martial order imposed by the orchestra. Yet even Bach’s profound Chaconne can, especially when heard in the glorious amphitheater recently reclaimed from the infidels, become a work of aggression: for all its striving, its brilliance, its ingenuity, and its pathos, the piece can be treated as heroic stuff, even as a kind of battle. Accordingly, one of the masterminds of the musical intervention, culture minister Vladimir Medinsky, proclaimed “it is the destiny of the Russian soldier at all times to save culture from fascist destruction.” For a valiant violin recruit, the Chaconne becomes a test of bravery in sound.

It’s an especially a harrowing mission to attempt in a desert climate before the world’s cameras. Also seeking solar protection under a baseball cap like Gergiev’s (the good guys may wear black shirts, but they do have white hats), thirty-three-year old Pavel Milyukov took center of the stage. Milyukov won third prize at last year’s Tchaikovsky International Competition—in Moscow of course. He proceeded to pound the Chaconne into submission, never relaxing the beat of his assault, his massive sound and strangling vibrato ringing out over the colonnades, captured in stirring panoramic shots for the television audience. No mercy was shown to the solo violin masterpiece just as none will be shown to the forces of Islamic evil.

From Bach to Prokofiev it was a signal victory for Russia’s rapidly deployed military-musical prowess. You can be sure this audacious action has jolted the Pentagon’s cultural colonels from their shameful complacency. Here’s betting blueprints for the covert operation Copland in the Caves of Kandahar are now being drawn up. If only the U. S. military had been ready to intervene with Appalachian Spring when the Arab Spring broke out, then maybe the Joint Chiefs would not have had to endure the recent humiliation of the Russians taking Palmyra by musical storm.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at