15 September 2013

Music and Politics

I have had a dream.  Nothing so elevated as Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s, nor prompted by some vision of a distant nirvana; merely brought on by watching BBC World News too late into the night.  In my dream I am lecturing to a class of students (I recognise it as being Middlesex University for the students there are an argumentative bunch) and, for some inexplicable reason, I pick on one of them and ask him if he knows the name of the American President.  He tells me he does not and I am astonished.  I press him, believing that it is impossible not to know his name, and even go so far as to give broad hints.  Yet still the student professes ignorance.  In desperation I say, “but you MUST know who the President of the United States is!”, to which he replies “Why?”.  And I wake up.

How I wish I had dreamt on just another few seconds, for I’d love to know what my answer was.  In the cold light of day, I am not sure that I can answer his question.  Is it important that music students, perhaps more than those in other disciplines, know the name of major world figures?  On the surface of it, it certainly does not seem a really vital piece of information for musicians to possess.
However, music – like all the arts – is intended to be consumed by society.  If society is your market place, then it is pretty obvious that you need to know about society, and one of the important things to do, if you are keeping in tune with society, is to follow closely its trends and developments, and to keep in touch with its thinking.  Companies who have attempted to do business in China without first understanding the Chinese psyche, business ethic and language, invariably get their fingers burnt.  (I knew of one which sailed in expecting the English model of business to be accepted and did not so much get its fingers burnt as have them all chopped up and served on a bed of rice with Soy Sauce – “Wah! Taste like Chicken!”)  So how can a composer, a performer or even a critic address a market of which they have no understanding of their recent trends?

We tend to be blinded by the elevated position in which we place the composers of the Classical Era; we even redefine the whole genre as “Classical”, a sure sign of the disproportionate stature we give this short period of musical history.  Regarding Haydn and Mozart to be non-political animals – little more than humble servants in courtly houses – we tend to open our mouths in awe at Beethoven who appeared to have some political thoughts of his own.  “Beethoven believed in Democracy” is a hackneyed phrase used to explain why he changed the course of musical history; but in truth all self-respecting musicians should hold strong political views.  How else can they communicate with and reflect on the society from which they are drawn.
Notwithstanding the musicians who worked for the church – and, frankly, has there ever been a more blatantly political organisation than the church? – most of those who worked during the Renaissance period were heavily involved in politics.  They combined their composing and performing with working as government agents, spies, ambassadors and emissaries.  Even in the Baroque era musicians had political lives.  Bach and Telemann, for example, sat on town councils, I read a compelling hypothesis about how Handel, far from absconding from the court in Hanover, had actually been secretly sent to London by the Elector of Hanover’s chamberlain to report back on the likely English reaction to the Elector’s claim on the British throne, and I find it incredible to think that Domenico Scarlatti’s only involvement in the court of King Philip of Spain was as the Queen’s keyboard instructor. 

The popular view is that musicians of the Romantic era had their heads so far up in the clouds that normal, daily things like politics did not concern them.  But look at the political posturings of Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin and, of course, Wagner (whose political outlook has been so distorted by politically-coloured historians that it is quite common to find students writing that he “was a member of the Nazi Party” and “admired Adolf Hitler” – forget the six years which elapsed between the death of Wagner and the birth of Hitler).  The 19th century was awash with political activity, and few musicians seemed to ignore it.
In more recent times there have been politician musicians.  Paderewski was a famous pianist and Prime Minister of Poland, while the British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, largely abandoned a promising career in music to take up politics.  In our own time many musicians have espoused political campaigns, not always with total success – Michael Berkeley’s anti-nuclear cantata or shall we die?... has mercifully sunk into oblivion, while Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony is often the butt of musical jokes – but sometimes so glitteringly successful that we almost forget their political overtones – audiences need reminding of the political message behind Britten’s War Requiem while the adoration heaped on Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs these days conveniently forgets the political issues which were at the heart of the work when it was written back in 1976. 

Unambiguously political works – The Death of Klinghoffer and Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima – have found a firm place in the repertoire, while even American politics, at home and abroad, have been celebrated.  What is Porgy and Bess if not a statement against racism, and Nixon in China makes no bones about celebrating the activities of an American president.

There is no obligation for musicians to know the name of the American President (unless, that is, they are saxophonists living during the Bill Clinton era) but not to know it today would imply that one has ignored the saturation news coverage of contemporary events.  If you can turn on TV, the radio, open a newspaper and check latest news stories online (for goodness’ sake, Windows 8 even puts the headlines up on that ghastly opening screen) and not know who the US president is, you have to be inhabiting the world of dreams.

I suspect that no music student at Middlesex, or anywhere else, is ignorant of such key facts about the political issues affecting society, but just to be on the safe side, my students are warned; I have not yet worked out how it will fit into any of the syllabuses I teach, but a few weeks into the next semester, and you can be sure that there is going to be an essay on Music and Politics.

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