The historic events of 1917 in Russia, and the question whether, one hundred years later this might create an excuse for celebration or commiseration, form the starting points for this year’s music festival. But all through our preparation, as we witnessed the spectacle of Brexit and Trump’s rise to power, further analogies came into play. The Marxist uprisings in Latin America and their legacy, particularly in Cuba and Venezuela. The developments in China after the demise of its last Emperor. Above all, the political tide that swept the French monarchy from its magnificent perch in Versailles. In comparison, Luther’s provocation against the Roman establishment in 1517 seemed a rather modest, considered gesture, the mere grievances of a meddling priest. Yet across Europe, it opened the floodgates for the spirit and the politics of reformation, religious or otherwise. And where the quest for a pure religion became clad in terror, that ever darker mantle of zeal, political power games took over. Henry VIII saw and grabbed the opportunity, only to back pedal once the genie was out of the bottle.

Canberra International Music Festival Artistic Director Roland Peelman. Photo © Dan SlossCanberra International Music Festival Artistic Director Roland Peelman. Photo © Dan Sloss

In all of this, money (or the lack thereof) played a dirty, defining role. The large debt problems of the French treasury around 1780 could not be resolved by a regime mired in antiquated regulations and long held privileges. The different strata of society, from those who had to those who never had, were thus pitted against one another, causing confusion, chaos, sectarianism and years of bloody terror until Napoleon imposed a new order by imperial decree. Similarly, the disastrous leadership of Nicholas I before and during WWI took Russia to the brink of economic collapse. The circumstances of the war and the abject poverty in the cities precipitated a real revolution. Once Lenin had made his way back to Petrograd, all it took was a Bolshevik coup d’état in October 1917 to establish party dictatorship. As in France, all aspects of society were fundamentally overhauled, though the worst excesses of state sponsored terror would not be felt till the mid-1930s. In comparison, the more protracted efforts of the Reformation paved the way for various types of absolutist rule. God’s opinion on the bible mattered little, as long as it granted divine unchallenged power. Only England evolved more gradually towards a system where different layers of society jostled for favour and influence. Religious flames waxed and waned, as did the ministrations of the monarch, as long as the money kept flowing in from the colonies. Hardly surprising that the real revolution happened across the Atlantic.

The American experience is exceptional, mainly because the result was a clearly described rule of law, rather than dictatorship. To this day, some of the most conservative US politicians like to call for radical change or for a ‘revolutionary’ approach to the hot issues of the day without blinking an eyelid. In Europe, this appropriation of the leftist rhetoric of revolution is a more recent phenomenon, having gained ground on the back of unprecedented levels of immigration combined with the effects of globalization and a GFC that worsened levels of inequality. Arguably, the first to see that the status quo could be attacked from the right rather than the left was Margaret Thatcher. Barely a generation later do we see how a tweeting twittering president can claim the mantle of revolution on the basis of a few hollow but well targeted slogans. And we all wonder how and when the steady surge of radical anti-immigration, isolationist and nativist movements in Europe can be halted.

Europe, and the world, did learn from its many revolutions – eventually. And the hideous consequences of those episodes in the 20th century when democracy was tragically subverted remain etched in our consciousness. Institutions were created, global agreements reached, barriers lifted, human rights recognized. Perhaps we may bemoan the glacial pace of multilateral decision making, or the ineffectualness of UN resolutions, or the bureaucratic meanderings of the European institutions, but the fact remains that a worldwide conflict has not occurred since 1945. So much so that relative safety and progress are taken for granted, and the shock of random violence, terrorist or otherwise, feeds a level of cynicism, mercilessly exploited by sections of the media. No matter how stoic or defiant our collective reaction may be, each time someone malignantly drives a truck through a pedestrian zone, the political narrative becomes just a little bit more complicated.

Over the last fifty odd years we have witnessed the Cultural revolution in China, its tragic replica in Cambodia, the fall of the iron wall and the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, great moments of change indeed, as well as a number of ‘hollow’ revolutions in ex-Soviet states and a few wannabe revolutions in the Arab world. Let’s face it, the theatre of revolution in the 21st century will look more like a sequence of medical breakthroughs and stupendous technological advances. Those espousing revolution in this age ironically clamour for revisionist measures, protectionism, nativism, isolationism, a return to the past.

This year’s Canberra International Music Festival thus revolves around historic moments: 1517, 1789, 1917, 1989, the cauldrons of change, alongside the groundswell movements of the last fifty years: feminism, digitisation and the opening up of the internet, the latest brainwaves in educational thinking, the end of the White Australia policy. Where is music in all this? The reformation brought vernacular hymns for the people into the equation (Why do the nations? Bach on Sunday). The events of the French revolution coincided with some of the greatest music ever created (Mozart in Vienna) and generated a rationale for people’s music and a formula for State propaganda music that proved very enduring (Barricades of Time). The Russian revolution set the framework for those forced to work within the system (Shostakovich), and those in exile who promulgated old Russian values (Rachmaninoff) or tried to purge any last Russian residue (Stravinsky). The upheavals in China and the growth of the Chinese diaspora is having a massive impact on Western culture (Harvest of Endurance, Red Dragon, Lion’s Roar). Feminism and the last hurdles of equality are worth pondering (Half the Sky). We welcome Chen Yi and Elena Kats-Chernin, two of the world’s most prominent composers, without forgetting some of their white male colleagues (Andrew Ford, Robert Davidson). But above all we welcome William Barton and the local Indigenous musicians who have been so generous in bringing their passion and creativity to our table.


Roland Peelman is the Artistic Director of the Canberra International Music Festival. Their 2017 season runs from April 27 to May 7 in various locations throughout Canberra. The Opening Gala will take place on Friday, April 28 at the Fitters’ Workshop with performances by William Barton, Lisa Moore, the Simón Bolívar String Quartet and a special appearance by Canadian violinist Alexandre da Costa.