Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Courage

Members of Pussy Riot “perform” at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow on February 21, 2012
Members of Pussy Riot “perform” at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow on February 21, 2012

On February 21, 2012 – ten years ago today – five members of the Russian feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot staged an unauthorized performance on the soleas [so-LAY-us] of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. (For our information, a “soleas” is the sanctuary platform in a Russian Orthodox Church.) The security personnel at the church were not pleased by this impromptu performance and quickly – within a minute – put an end to it.

However, following the dictum that “anything worth doing is worth recording,” Pussy Riot recorded their “performance” for posterity; that recording is linked below:

Why, oh why would these masked young women so desecrate a Russian Orthodox Cathedral? They had – to their minds – good reason. Vladimir Putin was up for re-election, and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (who was born Vladimir Mikhailovich in 1946), had thrown the church’s support behind Putin’s re-election.

Later that evening of February 21, 2012 – ten years ago today – Pussy Riot released a music video entitled “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” Thanks to the internet, that video circulated internationally, overnight. That video is linked below.

From there, things did not go well for certain members of Pussy Riot. We’ll get to that in a bit. But first:


Writing about singers and musicians, David Ackert editorialized in the Los Angeles Times:

“Singers and Musicians are some of the most driven, courageous people on the face of the earth. They deal with more day-to-day rejection in one year than most people do in a lifetime. Every day, they face the financial challenge of living a freelance lifestyle, the disrespect of people who think they should get real jobs [like their parents!, sorry], and their own fear that they’ll never work again. Every day, they have to ignore the possibility that the vision they have dedicated their lives to is a pipe dream. With every note, they stretch themselves, emotionally and physically, risking criticism and judgment. With every passing year, many of them watch as the other people their age achieve the predictable milestones of normal life – the car, the family, the house, the nest egg. Why? Because musicians and singers are willing to give their entire lives to a moment – to that melody, that lyric, that chord, or that interpretation that will stir the audience’s soul. Singers and Musicians are beings who have tasted life’s nectar in that crystal moment when they poured out their creative spirit and touched another’s heart. In that instant, they were as close to magic, God, and perfection as anyone could ever be. And in their own hearts, they know that to dedicate oneself to that moment is worth a thousand lifetimes.”


While I thoroughly appreciate Mr. Ackert’s sentiment – I do – he has rendered that sentiment so ridiculous through overstatement that his final three sentences could easily win a Dishonorable Mention in the Bulwer-Lytton Writing Contest, for the “worst conclusion to an expository paragraph.”

Yes, all people in the arts (singers, musicians, composers, writers, poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, and actors) require a certain degree of “courage,” but that courage can just as easily be explained as a serious personality disorder: fantasy-prone egotism tending towards idiocy-born-of-misplaced-hope. Pardon me that statement, but there’s nothing particularly special about self-employed artists excepting a common penchant for poverty and a pathological inability to work for anyone but themselves.

You want courage? Here’s courage: emergency room nurses and pediatric oncologists; police men, women, and EMT’s; middle school teachers and special forces soldiers (as if they are even different professions!).

Courageous Musicians?

For the purposes of this post, let us define “courage” not as the ability to face the career issues and disappointments inherent to the profession, but rather, the willingness to put oneself in harm’s way during the practice of that profession.

By harm’s way, I’m not referring to the potential economic risk caused by withdrawing one’s music from Spotify in protest, noble an act though that may be. By harm’s way I’m not referring to the awful process of audition and the pain of rejection that follows much more often than not. I’m not even referring to the courage it takes to mount performances that draw hoots, hisses, and thrown cabbages from the audience (like so many performances of Arnold Schoenberg’s music in turn-of-the-twentieth century Vienna, for example).

No: I’m talking about true physical courage: about practicing one’s musical profession in the face of violence.…

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