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This Musical World. The trail of war’s consequences is long

Written by: Mandy Stefanakis

‘All wars are evil, and all victims deserve support.’ – Clare Daley

A work that truly affects me is the first movement of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2. Okay, so I like sad music. But this is not just sad. In the extraordinary hands of cellist and humanitarian, Mstislav Rostropovich for whom it was written, it is tragic. Composed in 1966 the threat of Stalin’s mercurial whim was long gone. However, the depth of trauma on the complex personality of the composer, physically fragile and afflicted with anxieties, but imbued with a keen mind, steely resolve and quick sardonic wit, is obvious.

Shostakovich had constantly endured the vacillating accolades and wrath of Stalin’s political ‘artocracy’ who determined what his works were about and what one should feel and think when listening to them. The composer kept much of his personal musical expressions in the bottom drawer at this time, instead making public, amongst other endeavours, film scores which at least paid the bills. But music is such that one can blur the meaning if that is what will keep one’s family alive, and there is much subterfuge in some of his musical offerings to placate the powers that were. This cello concerto, however, and so many of his works are true outpourings of self, here drawing upon some of the diverse features of his multifarious personality, including his humour and his deep despondence.

People tend to respond to situations musically through the very actions one would hope would prevail as constants of human nature. With the current war in Ukraine, violinists drew on the learned skills from a pandemic to share their music across, and with, the world. (To be fair, Eric Whitacre helped herald this form of musical communion.) In this instance, the Ukrainian violinist, Illia Bondarenko, seeking safety in a Kyiv basement, begins to play a Ukrainian folk song entitled Verbovaya Doschechka. Gradually the solidarity of 94 violinists from around the world, join in, courtesy of digital magic. This brief tribute is musically and metaphorically moving, the solidarity of sound connecting musicians harmoniously around the globe could not be lost on any listener. There are other musical offerings, all expressing similar camaraderie. For example, Beton’s cover of The Clash’s London Calling, here Kyiv Calling, highlights the atrocities endured by Ukrainians. And Andriy Khlyvnyuk, from the Ukrainian rock group BoomBox sings with a rifle at hand as he trades his day job for battle greens. Pianists play at the border of Poland and Ukraine as refugees cross. Refugees are met with food, temporary and more permanent shelter, medical supplies, and music. But still, humans are slaughtered on the other side of the country’s boundary and still, these refugees’ lives will never be the same again.

Shostakovich’s second cello concerto evokes the long trail of the consequences of war, of violence, and intimidation. Such trauma relentlessly endures. Repressed, it eats from the inside. At least music provides a means of outpouring for some. War, violence and intimidation stem from a range of sources. Those who have grown up being intimidated themselves may learn that this is the only way to resolve disputes. Other people feel they have rights that not all should be afforded. This can also lead to a paranoia that those rights may be taken away and must therefore be defended at any cost. Some people have personalities or are the products of experiences which have only ever been solved with simplistic binary solutions. Intimidation and violence can play out in families, friendship groups, workplaces, political institutions, nationally and globally. And they can manifest through people who cannot look beyond themselves to the ramifications of their actions on others. Putin is one such person, but there are always others of similar ilk lurking. Autocrats are surrounded by enough ‘yes’ people to wield immense power, often with impunity. They leave the dirty work to, amongst others, frightened teenagers conscripted to fight a war many of them don’t believe in.

Photo by Sunguk Kim, on Unsplash

The problem is that there seems to be no redress; nothing to stop war with any immediacy. The Irish representative of the European Parliament calls out the hypocrisy of Western nations’ overwhelming response to the situation in Ukraine when others are equally suffering. Although her focus is on the dire situation in Afghanistan, it could be Yemen, it could be Syria, or Palestine for example. However, she states the obvious which is, ‘All wars are evil, and all victims deserve support. And until we get on that page, we have no credibility whatsoever’.

The Horrifying Truth as the band I Am Giant terms it reiterates this stance, that violence against anyone is deplorable and there is no reason for tolerating it. However, violence has been tacitly accepted for millennia as a legitimate form of conflict resolution. This must be the case because it keeps happening. Despite the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordering a halt to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war continues. Regardless of the best efforts of the majority of nations in the world attempting to negotiate a ceasefire, on it goes.

The world can literally no longer sustain such simplistic and devastating disputes. The planet cannot bear the impacts of such violence on its ecosystems of which humans are a part. Abating conflicts is the whole world’s problem. The only way to delegitimise violence is to have international laws that are inescapably enforceable: laws that address with immediacy, genocide, the brutal violation of peoples, and ecocide, the brutal violation of the planet. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterras, whom I admire, calls for disagreements to be addressed through dialogue. However, for this humane form of conflict resolution to be the accepted form, the norm, unbreachable laws must be in place.

It is gut-wrenching that the lives of so many innocent people are dictated by a few with immense power, who do not even have the courage to be on the ground witnessing the atrocities for which they are responsible. Collectively humans can and must do better. We keep saying it will never happen again, but the drums of war continue to be heard.


Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 126. Mstislav Rostropovich and the State Academy Symphony Orchestra of the USSR conducted by E. Svetlanov.

94 violinists from around the world for Ukraine

Beton – Kyiv Calling (cover of The Clash’s London Calling)

Andriy Khlyvnyuk: Ukrainian group, BoomBox frontman

Man plays piano for Ukrainian refugees at Polish border

Clare Daley: Ireland member of the European Parliament

Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently

I Am Giant – After the War

Mandy Stefanakis is a sessional lecturer in music education at Deakin University. She was previously Director of Music at Christ Church Grammar School and Essex Heights Primary School. She is a member of the Advisory Council of The Music Trust, Assistant Editor of the Trust’s e-zine Loudmouth, past-President and a Life Member of the Association of Music Educators. She lectured in music education at the University of Melbourne where she received her Master of Education degree. She has contributed to many arts curriculum initiatives and conducted professional development to assist implement these curricula over several decades. Mandy is the author of the Australian music focused education kits, Turn it Up! She has conducted extensive interviews for the National Film and Sound Archive, is an avid composer and her obsession with piano and cello continues.

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