06 May 2016

Music and Savagery


Frequently misquoted and almost as frequently mis-attributed, William Congreve’s lines “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak” from his play The Mourning Bride of 1697, is probably the most famous example of attributing powers to music for which there is scant (if any) evidence.  Ever since Congreve (and, indeed, for centuries before) writers have been happy to claim all sorts of special benefits from hearing or from playing music.  Some are true, some understate the case and others, like Congreve, have a grain of truth but in reality go far beyond what is credible.  We see this sort of thing today in those unthinking commentators who suggest that “classical music” and “beauty” are synonymous, and that listening to it is a way of stifling aggression.

There is no doubt in my mind that some music does have the power to soothe a savage breast, and that it can induce a sense of calm and well-being (much as a drop of alcohol on a flight can do).  But, just as with alcohol, too much – or the wrong type - can have entirely the opposite effect.  Does anyone feel calm and unaggressive after Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite?  One orchestral percussion player told me how he and his colleagues used to get so annoyed by the pre-recorded pre-concert injunction in the hall in which they performed to “sit back, relax and enjoy the music” that, when the performance included The Rite of Spring they felt induced to do their bit with excessive savagery.

Music has, undoubtedly, powers over the emotions to those receptive to it (and some tests seem to show that it can also trigger behavioural differences among those who attempt to resist it), and its effects can be observed for a period after the music has ceased to play.  But, at heart, music is a transitory experience for all, and no matter how frequently we revisit it, I remain unconvinced that any emotional or behavioural consequence of exposure to music can be anything other than temporary.

Which is not to say that we should not use music as a tool of peace and good-will; it is unusually well-equipped to have an effect in those areas.  That certainly was the thinking behind last night’s concert in Palmyra, the Syrian city scene of such appalling barbarism and unbelievable inhumanity in recent months when it came under the control of that pagan and sub-human organisation calling itself The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  According to Russia Today, “A Russian symphony orchestra led by Valery Gergiev has given a unique performance in ancient Palmyra, recently liberated from Islamic State militants. The concert was devoted to the victims of extremists, and intends to instil hope that peace can triumph over war and terrorism”.  It went on to quote the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs; “The concert in Palmyra is a highly spiritual response to those who wanted to destroy Syria, split the country along national and religious lines, and deprive it of Christian of principles.”  

That struck me as a lovely idea; to counter the bestiality and brutality of ISIL with the brilliance and beauty of classical music.  And while the animal brutes of ISIL have breasts of such savagery that only total oblivion could ever cure them, the power of music to heal, albeit temporarily, the deep psychological wounds of those directly affected should not be understated.  According to the BBC’s John Simpson, the performance was given by members of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra to an audience mainly comprising Russian and Iraqi soldiers, while Russia Today observed that the music performed was by Bach, Prokofiev and Schchedrin.   

But we live in a world where even the most generous and brave acts are tainted by political scepticism and national posturing. The New York Times interwove its report of the concert with gruesome details of carnage elsewhere in Syria, implying that the concert was inappropriate while war still raged, and even as John Simpson eloquently recounted the event, he also reported a reaction from some European governments and observers that the concert was, far from being a genuine attempt to use music to negate some of the extremes of physical and mental violence experienced in Palmyra, a bid by President Putin of Russia to highlight Russia's military supremacy.   Steve Rosenberg, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent put it in a nutshell: “Moscow will be hoping that images of its classical musicians in Syria will reinforce the message that Russia is a force for good.  But Western officials remain suspicious of Russia's intentions. Moscow has faced accusations that it has not done enough to rein in Syrian government forces. The Russians deny that and accuse America of not using its influence with the Syrian opposition to halt the fighting”.

The BBC website added this suggestive caption to this image;
"Cellist Sergei Roldugin is a close friend of Vladimir Putin"

So what, then, was this concert?  Was it a genuine expression of peace and hope using music as a symbolic representation of the triumph of civilization over barbarism, or a cynical political statement using Russian musicians as symbolic representatives of a military super-power in an aggressive piece of international posturing?


Frankly, whatever the West may think of the Russian government of President Putin, I have nothing but praise for anyone who, like William Congreve over 300 years ago, believes that music can “sooth a savage breast” despite all the evidence to the contrary.

15 comments:

  1. Music can never sooth the savage beast when heinous crimes and the murders of thousands of civilians are concerned. As if one pathetic performance by a group of so called russian musicians can whitewash the murders and displacement of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire in Syria. Weren't those russian musicians also paid with monies stashed away in BVI or Cayman Islands accounts by Putin and his minion Roldugin, as exposed by the Panama Papers? How does that exercise in Russian HYPOCRISY sooth the savage beast?

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  2. How does music trigger behavioural differences in those who attempt to resist it? What do you mean? What kind of behavioural differences?

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  3. As an earlier blog post observed, playing classical music in public subways has been shown to deter vandalism. There is, in fact, a great deal of evidence, much of it drawn from legitimate academic studies, to show that music can change behaviour amongst those who may not choose to seek music out; in other words, amongst those who would normally resist listening to classical music. Behavioural differences include a dissipation of aggression and a more responsive approach to society. Does that help?

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    1. Are you talking about the experiments in which classical music was played in areas where gangs and "yobs" tended to gather ? It was found that vandalism was reduced, but wasn't that due to the gangs not liking the music, and so dispersing and congregating somewhere else ? This would be displacement rather than dissipation of aggression.

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  4. Yes, it helps to an extent. Ideally classical music should sooth our inner demons. But, can it also feed them? Case in point, Hannibal Lecter chewed off the face of his guard as he listened to Bach's Goldberg variations. Interestingly, classical music functioned as an foil to psychopathology in Silence of the Lambs. So actively resisting classical music may actually sooth the savage beast in that case.

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    1. Do note that Silence of the Lambs is not a documentary - it is a horror fantasy. Unlikely to be an accurate source of insight into human responses to music.

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  5. I think the question we should ask is not whether playing music can or cannot "sooth emotions", but what was the intention of performing the music.
    Spontaneous acts by individuals - such as the cellist of Sarajevo, or Rostropovich at the Berlin Wall, or Karim Wasfi recently playing cello at a bomb site in Baghdad (is it only cellists that do this ???) - can be a way for a person to reach out through music to those who are horrified or traumatised by what has happened.
    Flying in an orchestra and instructing them to perform a concert seems a different thing. More of a statement by the person that issued the instruction.
    And since that person is Putin, the concert feels a bit more like a demonstration of power than a demonstration of human emotion.
    Or am I missing the caring, conciliatory side of Mr Putin.

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  6. No. I think you hit the nail on the head. Flying in an orchestra to perform at the ruins of Palmyra smacks of an attempt to replicate what Russia did during the Nazi seige of Leningrad in 1942. Russia is known for using music to shore up morale in the military. Only this time, it is done to distract the people from the realities of the deepening recession in Russia. And, the musicians aren't starving like those who performed the Leningrad Symphony in 1942. Ironically, it is Putin's comrade in graft, Rodulgin, who is taking centrestage. As if anyone can forget he has billions stashed away in offshore accounts, with Putin's "Papal" blessing. Frankly I am quite impressed by Roldulgin's ability to multi-task. Tax evasion can be a full-time job, and yet he is able to juggle that with his "front" as a musician. Putin actually flew in a bunch of reporters from Moscow to Syria to cover the event. Not a cheap PR campaign. Those criminal proceeds in offshore accounts must have come in handy.

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  7. Thanks for the reminder that Hannibal Lecter is fictional. It's Anthony Hopkins played him so convincingly..and my question remains - Do people who deliberately resist listening to classical music and switch to hard rock, become psychotic? Or display behavioural aggression?

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  8. Why has Dr Rochester stopped writing his blog? Especially when seems there are more comments now to his columns, than there are columns. Indeed the comments seem to have taken on a life of their own. But the anonymous writers need fodder. So please keep writing, and keeping musicians honest. The latter is such a tough job.

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    1. Reflecting Dr Rochester's bus-driving past, I think there tends to be big gaps between his articles, and then several arrive in quick succession. Perhaps he only writes when something moves him to do so. Mind the gap !

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  9. How about the Panama Papers and the role of crooked Russian musicians moonlighting as tax evaders and money launderers? And are SSO's russian and ukrainian musicians involved in this conspiracy? That should be an interesting subject.

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  10. What a relief there has been no mention of the Singapore Stupid Orchestra for months by sycophantic reviewers like chang tou liang. Long may it last. If only the SSO collapsed n is obliterated from the face of the earth. Tis'a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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    1. No it's not, and this blog is not a forum for illiterate imbeciles who believe that the cloak of anonymity gives them free rein to utter their nasty thoughts. I only expunge comments which are offensive to the majority of my literate and sensible readers - who come, I have to warn you, from much further afield than Singapore. If you have a hate against Singapore or its musical life, kindly direct it elsewhere please, otherwise confine your comments to responses to what is published on this blog. - Dr Marc

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