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When music matters – the political image of an orchestra

The Christmas Truce of 1914 depicted in Kevin Puts’ opera, Silent Night


I’ve been wondering how much classical music is suitable for political occasions. One Friday evening in July 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted world leaders of the G20 to a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie. Why? Partly because Beethoven’s Ninth is an important artifact of German history, but also, according to a German government spokesman quoted by CNN at the time, because its last movement, the choral setting of German poet Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 Ode to Joy, is ‘a hymn to humanity, peace and international understanding’. Leaving aside the fact that Beethoven’s Ninth has been co-opted by regimes of various stripes (its tune, but tune only, formed the basis of Rhodesia’s national anthem for a few years), my first reaction on hearing of this political use this was, ‘Always Beethoven’s Ninth?’

Off the top of my head, I thought of Leonard Bernstein conducting the ‘Ninth’ in Berlin when the Wall came down in 1989 and substituting ‘Friede’ (freedom) for ‘Freude’ (joy), or Chinese students broadcasting it from Tiananmen Square. As Natalie Nougayrède wrote in The Guardian on 8 May last year, ‘It was no coincidence that the music [French president-elect] Emmanuel Macron chose to accompany him, as he walked in victory through the Louvre esplanade on Sunday night, was Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the official anthem of the European Union.’

In 1936, Pablo Casals and his Barcelona musicians insisted on continuing with their rehearsal of the ‘Ode to Joy’ when they heard that fascist troops were closing in on them. You could say that the Ninth’s stature has been forged in the crucible of war. But I wonder if Beethoven’s Ninth is the limit of classical music’s ability to participate in political discourse?

I can’t help contrasting this situation with what seems to apply in popular music. Given my vintage, I think of the wealth of music and musicians such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez associated with an anti-Vietnam War stance in the 1960s. I think of George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh. And Live-Aid. Were any symphony orchestras invited to take part in those mega-events? What would they have played? These days there’s the whole phenomenon of political hip-hop venturing into subjects such as domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, or the Iraq war. I even recently saw old video of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr singing the 1927 hit Me and My Shadow on TV and wondered if the producers of that show in the 1960s were making a subtle point about Civil Rights as Sinatra and Davis followed each other playfully across stage, reversing direction at the ends of phrases so that first Davis followed Sinatra, then Sinatra followed Davis.

It has made me wonder if there is much of a political dimension to classical music. But of course there is.

Just about every program note written on Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony mentions how the US premiere was fought over by America’s musical luminaries and how Arturo Toscanini beat all his fellow-contenders by conducting the NBC Orchestra in a radio broadcast from New York in July 1942 (all good for Allied PR in the war effort), and how the work was performed in August1942 by starving musicians in a Leningrad under siege (even more of a morale-booster). I’m not sure how successful you’d be in persuading a visiting Head of State to sit through Shostakovich’s Seventh these days, but in his essay, When Serious Music Mattered, Richard Taruskin conveyed a vivid sense of how Soviet citizens in the 1970s, his fellow-students at Moscow Conservatory, hungered for the music of Shostakovich – and not just the Seventh. It seems to have allowed them to tap censored and dangerous feelings.

In an October 2018 interview in The Guardian headed: ‘I want my art to matter. I want it to be of use’, American composer John Luther Adams said he wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning orchestral piece, Become Ocean as ‘a meditation on the deep and mysterious tides of existence. Life on Earth first emerged from the sea. And as the polar ice melts and sea levels rise, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may literally become ocean.’ So there’s an ecological slant to Adams’ work but I wonder if an audience would know what’s going on in all that powerful orchestral ebbing and flowing without the title?

Do we always need words? I wonder if that might be the advantage enjoyed by popular music, which seems to disdain ‘instrumentals’. These questions came up again for me when I read Anne Midgette’s survey of all the memorial concerts taking place around Washington this November, 100 years after the cessation of hostilities in World War I. There you did not find multiple renditions of the Ninth, but the National Symphony Orchestra performed Britten’s War Requiem which uses the words of Wilfred Owen who was killed during the crossing of the Sambre-Oise canal in France on 4 November, 1918, a week before the signing of the Armistice. The Washington National Opera presented Silent Night, Kevin Puts’ adaptation of the 2005 film Joyeux Noël which told of the Christmas Day truce in 1914 which temporarily stopped the shooting. True, the New Orchestra of Washington presented a concert which contained Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin… But you have to be told that this purely orchestral work memorialises friends of Ravel who died in battle if you want to experience the sadness.

In his 1977 book, Music Society Education Christopher Small bemoaned the constant recourse to standard classical repertoire in concerts meant to welcome visiting heads of state, occasions when you might think points could be made. You could avoid Beethoven’s Ninth, I suppose, if you took foreign dignitaries to the opera, to say Fidelio, Rheingold or Silent Night. ‘I have come to the conclusion,’ said director Phelim McDermott, director of LA Opera’s recent production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, ‘that it is perhaps only through an epic form like opera that we can communicate the complexity of ideas behind such a thing as [Gandhi’s concept of non-violent resistance].’ But actually Small would have argued against the idea that only music with words can carry a point. He saw implicit societal meaning in Absolute classical music. This may be a crude summation of his and other commentators’ observations but here goes: the impulse of a symphonic movement to overcome dissonant key areas and push through to a climax is blatantly aspirational. Sonata form is a musical tribute to the idea of progress. But that’s what makes Debussy’s music and Minimalism so revolutionary. The music of Debussy and of Steve Reich or Philip Glass is music that basks in the moment, transitional rather than constructive, subsisting rather than imperializing. But I would think you’d have to be pretty well-versed in musical grammar and semiotics to get all this.

I can think of one piece of clearly political but wordless Absolute music. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was composed while Messiaen was an inmate in a prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag VIII-A, in Görlitz Germany (now Zgorzelec, Poland). The first performance took place in 1941 on ‘an upright piano that was extremely out-of-tune, whose keys intermittently stuck’. It appears that the performance touched inmates and guards alike as an expression of their common humanity. It’s interesting to consider the extent to which the surrounding conditions guaranteed this response. I’m sure I’ve sat in audiences for whom the story behind the work remained unknown. Not everybody reads program notes and yet in those halls…well, as the saying goes, you could have heard a pin drop. Were people physically communing with the excruciatingly intense concentration that this work demands from its players? A performance of part of the Quartet for the End of Time was featured in one of the episodes of Mozart in the Jungle, the Amazon series about life in a fictional US orchestra, the New York Symphony. The musicians went out to perform at Riker’s Island, New York’s main jail complex in the Bronx. As one of the Rikers’ prisoners told untappedcities.com, ‘I just closed my eyes and I was letting the instruments just come to me and I just felt free like that, you know? It was just…it was just…a different type of feeling…’ But the show set the performance in a prison, emulating the original performance conditions. At least for the viewing audience at home, the context might have conditioned their reactions.

I had lunch near UCLA with an up-and-coming musicologist, Ryan Shiotsuki, who told me that he welcomes this discussion of politics in classical music. ‘It’s well overdue.’ But he pointed out that the dimensions of the discussion are so much broader than we think. We can’t ignore what the music is like ‘as sound’. And ‘you cannot ignore the execution of that particular music’s performance, the intention of its rhetoric, the nature of its context, and the impact that that might have on an audience. Mravinsky’s Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony accentuates some of the extremes already on display in the music. Shostakovich’s ending is already a stretched out heroic finale that seems to beat you over the head with its eighth notes in the strings, but Mravinsky plays them even slower, like a forced smile. Compare that with Bernstein’s very fast paced ending.’

But Ryan’s reminder of music ‘as sound’ persuades me as to one of the main reasons why it might be ‘always Beethoven’s Ninth’. Because Beethoven’s Ninth is at the same time stunning music. It’s inspiring even if you only have a general idea of the meaning the words supply. Undoubtedly also, millions of people love political rap without feeling the slightest urge to join MoveOn.org or Black Lives Matter. And as the Hollywood producer, Sam Goldwyn is alleged to have said, ‘Messages are for Western Union.’ Didacticism turns people off.

So should symphony orchestra administrators jump through hoops to find alternatives to Beethoven’s Ninth when they want to make a musically-enjoyable point? And if the ‘Ode to Joy’ can so easily be co-opted, are orchestras checkmated when they want to make a political contribution? On the night that I saw Satyagraha at LA Opera, Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra played at Disney Hall, ‘an extraordinary concert of solutions’, said Los Angeles Times’ critic, Mark Swed. The actual programming could be read as a message of sorts: Strauss’s Don Quixote followed by Tchaikovsky’s Fifth – an idealistic fool who tilts at windmills followed by one of classical music’s clearest examples of a victory structure in Tchaikovsky’s last movement. (Barenboim’s encore, apparently, was the Mastersingers Overture of Wagner, a composer banned in Israel, one of four states where Barenboim is a citizen). But you had to look also at the stage where Israelis and Palestinians and Syrians and Iranians played in ensemble, a deliberate combination. The larger point was that these people, for all their differences, were playing together.

This strikes me as classical music’s strongest political statement, outside of context and regardless of text or tones. I think back to Mozart in the Jungle and the picture the series’ writers paint there of life behind the orchestral scenes. None of us needs to watch that show to know that in an orchestra you have people of all types, all political persuasions, recluses, bon vivants, introverts, extroverts; people who are not talking to each other, people who are married or were once married, people who were once married but still talk to each other; people whose grandparents fled Hungary in 1956 or whose parents fled Chile in 1973 or Saigon in 1975 or people who are too young to know what on earth I’m talking about (you fill in the blanks). And yet, they’ll all bury their differences and their own egos to deliver a stunning performance, under a conductor they’ve agreed to follow. Isn’t an orchestra in and of itself, every time it produces a successful concert, the image of a diverse society working toward a common goal? It should be said that that’s pretty effective politics.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2018