Can Music Speak Truth to Power?

By Leon Botstein

“It is a sad commentary on the decline of the importance and prestige of classical musicians that, in the United States, so few of them are currently active in the political life of the nation.”

The horror, destruction, and cruelty that persist, particularly in this past year in Ukraine, Gaza, and Syria, have properly forced raw politics into the center of our attention. By coincidence, in two of the countries tied to these conflicts, there are prominent musicians who are public figures, Valery Gergiev and Daniel Barenboim. As conductors, they are highly visible, and both of them have become controversial. Gergiev has been criticized for supporting Vladimir Putin and failing to use his international stature and well-earned reputation as a Russian patriot to oppose restrictions within Russia on civil liberties, freedom of expression and assembly, and to combat xenophobia and discrimination against the lesbian, gay, and transgender communities. Barenboim, although lionized by the Israeli public as a performer, has been taken to task for his fierce and longstanding advocacy for the rights of the Palestinians and his criticism of the Israeli government.

By their actions as leading citizens of their respective countries, these two star performers raise the question of the connection between music and politics. Music has occupied an ambiguous place as a public art form. The traditions of Western music, particularly as they flourished during the 19th century, were widespread and popular. Music was not only about going to concerts and the opera; listening to professionals perform emerged from active amateurism, individuals who played and sang at home and in the closed circle of private societies. During the repressive regimes that dominated Europe between 1815 and 1848, musical culture assumed a privileged place. The forms of music, particularly symphonic and chamber music but also choral music, appeared to censors in a police state as innocent and devoid of politically dangerous content when compared to literature and the visual arts. (Even so, the manuscript of Schubert’s 1823 opera about the Medieval Christian-Muslim conflict, Fierrabras, is studded with changes demanded by the censors, although it was never produced in the composer’s lifetime.) Even though political freedom was restricted, music was to a greater degree exempt from control and thereby assumed a distinct appeal as an arena of human expression at once both abstract and emotional and deeply personal, but devoid of any unambiguous content or meaning that could threaten or challenge political authority.

These circumstances helped lend credibility to the mid-19th-century aesthetic theory that declared music to be a self-referential system without any explicit correlation to images and words and, therefore, ordinary meaning: the notion of “absolute music.” Music achieved the status of appearing to be—on its own and without words—entirely apolitical. There was, of course, a potent challenge to this construct of the nature of music that came from Liszt and Wagner, both of whom were decidedly politically engaged—Liszt in the Hungarian national movement and Wagner on behalf of the aspirations of the new German nation after 1870.

Wagner’s extraordinary success and impact, particularly the unprecedented popularity he achieved through his music, rendered the supposition that music is inherently apolitical an illusion. Music as an activity and as entertainment proved to be crucial in the development of various late-19th-century nationalisms. In the German-speaking world, the Wagnerian came to define the German. Dvorák and Smetana became central to fashioning a Czech identity, just as the Mighty Five in Russia became successful protagonists of what they regarded to be the essence of the distinctive Russian spirit.

The popularity and influence of musical culture as a social phenomenon were not lost on the dictators of the 20th century. Stalin and Hitler were notorious music lovers. For Hitler, music was at the core of the Nazi aspiration to create a new Aryan pseudo-religious sensibility. His favorite composers were Wagner and Bruckner. Stalin was, de facto, the Soviet Union’s chief music critic. He castigated Shostakovich’s incipient modernism in the mid-1930s, and backed the notorious Zhdanov decrees of 1948 that excoriated formalism not only in Shostakovich but in Miaskovsky and Prokofiev as well. The intersection of music and politics during the 1930s was not limited to tyrannies. In the United States, Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, and Roy Harris took political considerations into account in their search for a distinctive voice  as composers; they sought to reconcile aesthetic modernism with political advocacy for social justice and equality. Like their Weimar Republic contemporaries Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, they had second thoughts about the virtues of a musical modernism rooted in progressive aesthetic criteria whose radical character alienated the middle-class audience and held, in particular, no attraction for the working classes. It may have been chic to épater le bourgeois, but to have no public at large seemed both ironic and elitist.

Throughout the 20th century the connection between politics and music was not limited to the work of composers. Early in the century the balance of musical life and the attention of the general public had already shifted from an interest in new music to the performance of canonic music from the past. Much to the ire of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, the musicians who made the most money and garnered the greatest public attention were no longer composers but performers. The star performers of the mid-20th century became music’s ambassadors, the key public figures of the day. 

Consequently, their political engagement came under scrutiny. Toscanini was honored as an Italian patriot who was an ardent anti-Fascist. Ignace Paderewski took on the mantle of Polish national liberation and became the new nation’s first president. Yehudi Menuhin defended himself against criticism, celebrating the dream of the musician as citizen of the world by ostentatiously embracing former Nazis as colleagues immediately after the war. Rafael Kubelik and Rudolf Firkusny were stalwart opponents of the post-war Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia, and they returned after 1989 as heroes. A host of German artists, notably Walter Gieseking, Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, collaborated with the Nazis with embarrassing enthusiasm, as did the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg. Wilhelm Furtwängler’s post-1933 politics became a hotly debated subject in the immediate years following the war, as was Erno Dohnányi’s wartime behavior in Hungary.

Oddly enough, in the United States, during the heyday of modernism in the 1950s, the image of the musician as inherently apolitical became a Cold War norm. The most prominent musicians in the U.S. after World War II came as refugees; they understandably felt that engaging in American politics was inappropriate. Within the generation of American-born musicians that attained prominence in the 1950s, Leonard Bernstein was an exception to the image of the musician as above politics. Bernstein may have been the last highly visible American classical musician to speak out on political matters. He did so mostly during the 1950s and 1960s, before his retirement from the New York Philharmonic. In 1970, a few months after his retirement, he was famously excoriated for expressing solidarity with the Black Panthers and was the inspiration for the phrase “radical chic.” To his credit, however, Bernstein believed that music mattered, and that as a public figure he had an obligation to speak his mind on crucial issues in American politics, including McCarthyism and Civil Rights.

It is a sad commentary on the decline of the importance and prestige of classical musicians that, in the United States, so few of them are currently active in the political life of the nation, hiding unchallenged behind the blithe assumption that music is a world apart. They exploit the false distinction between the “musical” and the “extra-musical,” a distinction that is artificial and defies the simple truth so eloquently expressed by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, that music is “a form of life” much like any other. Although orchestras and opera houses are supported indirectly by the state through tax exemptions for philanthropy, and are constituent institutions of civil society performing a public function, the number of prominent conductors and star soloists who now speak out on political questions can barely be counted on one hand.

At the same time, music critics and the public in this country are ready to take aim not at the silence of American musicians in matters of politics, but at Gergiev, Barenboim, and most recently Gustavo Dudamel, the charismatic young music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The one exception in this respect in today’s debate regarding the intersection between politics and classical music is the American composer John Adams, whose operas have consistently had political overtones if not political content. The most controversial of these is The Death of Klinghoffer, given its premiere in 1991; its argument deals not with American politics but with the Arab-Israeli conflict and an act of terrorism dating from the 1980s.

The Metropolitan Opera produced the opera in October, but backed away from disseminating it through its HD network for fear of offending the wider public. For a variety of understandable reasons, the Met settled on a com- promise and declined to confront the politics surrounding the opera’s purported message. Apart from the Met’s Klinghoffer controversy, most of the attention in the American press regarding music and politics has remained focused on Gergiev and Dudamel. In Gergiev’s case, the irony is that he has unabashedly displayed a fierce patriotism as a Russian in a manner consistent with his advocacy of the Russian repertoire, particularly rare operas. His tireless efforts on behalf of the Mariinsky Theater, which he has led since 1988, and the musical life of St. Petersburg, are extraordinary.

Americans as outsiders may not like his politics, but he is to be admired for stepping out of the protected realm of his own career to try to sustain a vital but endangered musical culture in post-Communist Russia. He is part of a tradition more than a century old in which Russian musicians have not shied away from being controversial political figures. The politics Gergiev defends may merit criticism, but not his political engagement.

The more complicated case is that of Dudamel, the finest alumnus of Venezuela’s legendary El Sistema program. The program was founded 40 years ago by José Antonio Abreu, a brilliant economist and musician and, above all, a superlative and idealistic politician. He started it under the regime of Carlos Andrés Pérez and saw it flourish after 1999 during the era of Hugo Chávez. It continues to be the object of extensive patronage by the Maduro regime. Abreu’s program now reaches well over 400,000 Venezuelans, primarily children and young adults from the poorest areas of the country. Abreu found a way to use music education and participation in musical ensembles, incorporating the Western classical tradition, to do more than teach music. El Sistema is a program that provides social mobility and hope, and an avenue out of poverty and ignorance. Abreu has done so by placing music at the core of a social program rather than an arts program,  and by working with regimes considered undemocratic, populist, and repressive. He has embraced one of the toughest challenges in public life: to live with compromise on behalf of a long-term public good, and to take the long view about what needs to be done in order to lay a better foundation for a political future based on social justice and freedom. El Sistema would never have had its impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals had it not been for Abreu’s ability to muster massive government public support and shun the role of public critic. El Sistema has taken a place in Venezuelan national identity usually reserved for sports teams. This is no trivial accomplishment.

To speak out against tyranny, war, and injustice certainly takes courage, since speech is a form of action. But to establish a program with deep roots in society that develops the minds and skills of underserved and impoverished young people on a massive scale takes an altogether different form of courage. Dudamel is crucial to El Sistema’s survival after Abreu. Dudamel is less of a political activist than Gergiev. He is unambiguously committed to El Sistema in Venezuela and to its adaptation in the context of the United States, as his work in Los Angeles shows. Criticism of his unwillingness to take the expected and seemingly straightforward step of rebuking the Venezuelan government, and rejecting the desire of a still quite popular regime to spotlight him as the pride of Venezuela, is misplaced. Like Abreu, Dudamel appears to have taken the long view. The short-term publicity that might redound to his benefit for being critical of the current regime would perhaps endear him to a class of liberal music lovers in North America and Europe, but it could alienate him from his countrymen and imperil the essential government support for El Sistema.

The American criticism of Dudamel, and for that matter Gergiev, poorly camouflages a profound paradox among our fellow citizens who have chosen to speak out against both of them. Where is the outspoken engagement by musicians here at home? Where is the outrage at the deafening silence among our own classical musicians of prominence, concerning the shortcomings of our politics and government or on behalf of causes related to this country’s predicaments? Where are the voices of musicians in positions of leadership in opposition to the rising and corrosive inequality of wealth in the United States? Where are the voices among musicians on behalf of the improvement of public education? Where in the United States are the leaders in the classical music establishment pioneering and developing programs of arts education that are more than decorative “outreach” efforts, that are instead systemic collaborations with schools and other institutions designed to assist the least well-served populations in the United States?

Speaking truth to power, as the phrase goes, is hard. Working on behalf of improving the lot of our less fortunate fellow citizens is even harder. Gergiev and Dudamel, in quite different ways, have shown commitment to the potential role of musical culture in advancing the well-being of their respective communities and nations. Would we not benefit from less moralizing about the political role played by star performers in other countries, and from more attention to what musicians in the United States can do in our own country to make progress in the key areas of education, social mobility, and, finally, privacy and freedom of expression? 

The argument against taking this point of view rests primarily on our view of the past, especially the legacy of political collaboration by musicians with Hitler and Stalin. Musicians and music lovers find themselves caught in a bind when they contemplate the music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Strauss on the one hand, and on the other are forced to make a candid assessment of the political behavior of these three great composers. We are not consistent in how we balance politics with aesthetic judgment. Hans Pfitzner’s music is performed more than the music by Karl Amadeus Hartmann. Pfitzner was an enthusiastic Nazi, and a fine composer. Hartmann was a far greater composer and one of the few heroic non-Jewish anti-Nazis; during the 1930s and 1940s he sacrificed his career by refusing to collaborate.

When we criticize Gergiev and Dudamel, we think we are trying to show that we have learned the lessons taught  by the cases of Furtwängler, Karajan, and Böhm. Yet have we? Each of these three had successful post-war careers. Their legacies are still cherished today. Even Leonard Bernstein, a proud Jew and supporter of Israel saw no difficulty lavishing inordinate praise on Böhm, whose wartime behavior was utterly reprehensible. A similar inconsistency extends to Israel, where a ban on the music of Wagner (who died in 1883, before Hitler was born) remains in effect, and yet Carl Orff ’s Carmina Burana, a work written during the Third Reich explicitly calculated to celebrate Nazi ideology and aesthetics, is performed in Israel without comment.

This dissonance between moral and political judgments and aesthetic preferences may not apply to the cases of Gergiev and Dudamel. They are doing more than simply burnishing their résumés and advancing their careers. In an imperfect and troublesome political context, rife with thorny ethical implications, they have chosen to work on behalf of the public good in their countries through music and education by siding with a politics that many may not admire, for good reason. Instead of focusing our attention on them, we ought to turn our attention to the situation here in the United States. We should call on our fellow musicians to speak and work, as musicians, in the public sphere on the tough task of advancing the causes of good government, social justice, and individual liberty—the core values of democracy. •

Leon Botstein recently entered his 23rd year as music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra. He has been president of Bard College since 1975. He is also conductor laureate of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, where he served as music director from 2003-2011.


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