Ukrainians fill the streets with music, echoing former war zones

When bombs started falling on the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv late last month, forcing Vera Lytovchenko to take shelter in the basement of her building, she took her violin with her, hoping it would bring comfort .

In the weeks that followed, Lytovchenko, a violinist with the Kharkiv Opera and Ballet Theater, performed impromptu concerts almost daily for a group of 11 neighbors. In the cold, cramped basement, with nothing for decoration but candles and yellow tulips, she performed Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky and Ukrainian folk songs.

“My music can show that we’re still human,” she said in an interview. “We don’t just need food or water. We need our culture. We are no longer like animals now. We still have our music and we still have our hope.

As their cities were besieged by Russian forces, Ukrainian artists turned to music for comfort and connection, filling the streets, apartment buildings and train stations with the sounds of Beethoven and Mozart.

A cellist performed Bach in the center of a deserted Kharkiv street, the blown windows of the regional police headquarters behind him. A trumpeter played the Ukrainian national anthem at a subway station serving as an air raid shelter. A pianist played a Chopin study in her apartment, surrounded by ash and debris left by Russian bombing.

Impromptu performances by ordinary citizens have been a feature of many modern conflicts, in the Balkans, Syria and elsewhere. In the age of social media, they have become an important way for artists in war zones to create a sense of community and draw attention to suffering. Here are some notable examples.

Aeham Ahmad gained attention in 2013 when he began posting videos showing him playing the piano in the ruins of Yarmouk, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, which was ravaged by civil war in its country. Sometimes friends and neighbors sang. The media started calling Ahmad the “pianist of Yarmouk”.

At the time, government troops kept his neighborhood cordoned off, hitting it with artillery and sometimes airstrikes, as insurgent groups fought for control. Many people suffered from a lack of access to food and medicine; some died.

“I want to give them a beautiful dream,” Ahmad told The New York Times in 2013. “To change that black color to at least gray.”

Musicians have long played a role in helping people cope with the physical and psychological devastation of war.

“They are trying to recreate a community, which has been fractured by war“, said Abby Anderton, an associate professor of music at Baruch College who studied music in the aftermath of the war. “People have a real desire to create normality, even though everything around them seems to be falling apart.”

During the Bosnian war in 1992, Vedran Smailovic became known as the “cellist of Sarajevo” after commemorating the dead by playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor every day at 4 p.m. in the ruins of a Sarajevo downtown square. He continued to play even as 155 millimeter howitzer shells whizzed over the city.

“Many, like Mr. Smailovic, who played cello at the Sarajevo Opera, anchor themselves in the midst of chaos by doing something, no matter how small, that brings them back to the stable and reasoned life they used to lead. before,” the Times reported at the time. .

“My mother is Muslim and my father is Muslim, but I don’t care,” Smailovic said at the time. “I am a Sarajevan, I am a cosmopolitan, I am a pacifist.” He added: “I’m nothing special, I’m a musician, I’m part of the city. Like everyone else, I do what I can. »

As ordinary citizens became famous for their wartime performances, governments also sought to promote wartime nationalism by staging their own concerts.

In 2016, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, a friend and prominent supporter of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, conducted a patriotic concert in the Syrian city of Palmyra, shortly after Russian airstrikes helped drive out the Islamic State in the city.

On Russian TV, the concert was peppered with videos of Islamic State atrocities, part of a propaganda effort to stoke pride in the Russian military, including its support for President Bashar’s government al-Assad of Syria. Putin was shown thanking the musicians via video link from his vacation home on the Black Sea.

Classical music has long been used for political purposes. Emily Richmond Pollock, an associate professor of music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said she was often invoked in times of war because she “was built as timeless, powerful and human”.

But much of the music is also abstract, which has led to its use in different ways.

“You can think of pieces like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which was used in times of liberal triumph and right-wing triumph,” Pollock said. “A lot of parts are very malleable.”

Performances in war zones capture audiences’ attention in part because of their juxtapositions with scenes of destruction and despair. This explains their high popularity on social media, which has become an important tool for artists in conflict zones to draw attention to the suffering around them.

“They can use Instagram and social media platforms to engage people who might be geographically distant in their very real struggle,” Professor Anderton said. “When we hear someone play a Chopin etude or prelude on a destroyed piano, there is a sense of shared humanity..”

When Russia began its invasion in late February, Kyiv Conservatory student Illia Bondarenko was looking for a way to shine a light on Ukraine’s struggles. Working with violinist Kerenza Peacock, who is based in Los Angeles, he started what he called a “violin flash mob”. He mixed a video of him performing a Ukrainian folk song in a basement with virtual performances from 94 musicians from around the world.

“It is a great message for all civilizations of the world that the Ukrainian people are not weak and we are strong,” Bondarenko said in an interview. “We won’t give up and we will hold on no matter what.”

Lytovchenko, the violinist, continued to post performances online. She plans to record a duet with a pianist who lives abroad and says she has raised around $10,000 to help Ukrainian families.

“I’m not sure that my music can withstand violence and stop war; I’m not that naive,” she said. “But maybe it can show that we’re not that aggressive, that we don’t have hatred in our hearts, that we can still be human.”

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