08 April 2019

Music and Politics

Sibelius - Not a Political Man?
Sunday saw the first in a series of concerts by the amateur Philharmonic Orchestra of Singapore presenting all seven Sibelius symphonies.  It was impressive – but if you want to know what I really thought about the concert you will need to look at my review in tomorrow’s Straits Times.  A beautifully produced programme booklet included a fascinating essay on the Finnish symphony, but brought me up short with an astonishing statement; “Like most artists, Sibelius was not a political man”.

Was I reading that correctly?  Was there a misprint and the word “not” added by some inebriated editor?  I am still convinced the person who could pen such a perceptive essay on Finland and the Finnish symphony (forget the really irritating habit of presenting history in the present tense) could not possibly have committed such a blunder.  But let us, for a moment, suspend logic and imagine, incredible as it may seem, that the writer meant what she said.

I am not the world authority on Sibelius – not by a long Finnish mile – so I defer to the wisdom of Veijo Murtom√§ki who, in 2015, published an essay entitled The Responsibility of an Artist. “Sibelius and his fellow artists – such as painters Axel Gallen(-Kallela) and Eero J√§rnefelt, author Juhani Aho, poet Eino Leino and many others – had a classical education, and their readiness to fight for Finland’s independence stemmed from the spirit in which the Classical heroes of Antiquity defended their poleis. Finnish artists were patriotically active especially during what are known in Finnish history as the ‘years of oppression’ (1899–1905, 1908–1917).  Between 1898 and 1920 Sibelius wrote some two dozen pieces in which he addressed the nation either directly or through allegory, expressing the common sorrow and hope under the difficult political circumstances that all Finns felt. This had the result of making Sibelius a symbol of the awakening of Finland”.  That, surely, makes him a political man?

But what of other “artists”?  I shall let the painters, the sculptors, the poets, the authors, the film-makers and theatre directors, the rock bands and the installation artists fend for themselves.  My interest is in classical music and musicians.  Was there ever a more political man than Beethoven, often held up as a champion of democratic ideals and the enfranchisement of the common man?  Haydn’s fascination with English politics (and that was before Brexit) is well documented, as is Mozart’s intrigues with the political life of 18th century Europe.  Bach found himself caught up in the political situation of his time, and Handel was not the only artist to get so involved in politics that he put his whole career on the line; his abrupt departure from Hanover to London can best be explained by his secret role as an emissary (aka spy) for his employer’s political ambitions with regard to the British throne.  Others who were professionally involved in political activities included Domenico Scarlatti (who came from a family with strong political associations in their native Sicily), John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons and Josquin Desprez.  What was Sir Arnold Bax if not a leading political figure and activist on both sides of the Irish Sea?  What was Michael Tippett if not a passionate advocate for left-leaning politics?  Whenever I met Malcolm Williamson he was always sporting a very large badge proclaiming his membership of the Communist Party, and when, as a student, I campaigned for a Welsh language television channel, I was aware of the active support of both Alun Hoddinott and William Mathias.  Did not Wagner get himself wrapped up in the political demonstrations of 1848?  Was not Schumann deeply affected by them as well?  How about Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov, whose opposition to the politics in their native Russia saw them flee into exile, while Shostakovich and Kabalevsky became politically pawns in the new world of Soviet Communism?  And talking of political pawns, we cannot overlook Richard Strauss.  Carl Orff’s posthumous reputation suffers largely because of his right-wing political affiliations, but somehow Puccini has escaped the censure of the left-wing despite a letter he wrote in 1922 in praise of Mussolini – “I hope he will prove to be the man we need”.  Boulez once described his politics as “very Leninistic”, and even the apparently innocuous Mendelssohn wrote “art and life are not two different things”. Whenever a Conservative Party politician utters some nonsense about music education, you can be sure Sir Simon Rattle will be quick to jump on to the airwaves and enter into a passionate political debate with them, followed by a host of other passionate political artists.  My difficulty is finding a classical musician who is NOT a “political man”.

And while the gender-specific originated from the female author of the essay, I am happy to open it up to female artists.  Was not Dame Ethel Smyth a leading figure in the suffragette movement?  Facebook friends Roxana Panufnik and Judith Bingham are never short of opinions on major political issues. 

Not to be involved in or, at the very least, passionately interested in politics is, to my way of thinking, and abrogation of artistic obligations.  You cannot regard music as an isolationist art form; it is a product of society and reflects society.  As an old Latin teacher from my school will no doubt be quick to point out, the word politics originates from a Greek term which translates as “affairs of the city”.  (If I’ve got that wrong, the fault will lie with own my old Latin teacher who has long since died; his colleague, still alive and kicking on Facebook, is not to blame!) So, in its broadest sense, we can take politics to mean “the activities involved in running a state”.  And since we all have a vested interest in that, and since it is the job of artists to reflect and illuminate the society in which they live and work, it follows that it is not so much incumbent on the artist to be politically aware as an absolute obligation.

I worry that music students often show little interest in politics.  Perhaps in Singapore, where politics is outwardly bland to the point of tedium, there might just be some excuse for that.  But we no longer live in an isolationist world, and surely everyone is affected by political events in Libya, Rwanda, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, China, New Zealand, the USA and Europe (mentioning just the countries covered in today’s world new headlines)?  I would go so far as to say that unless you become political men and women, you will never become true artists.  Sibelius was most certainly a “political man” – that’s why we still listen to his symphonies 100 years on and in a country almost 10,000 kms distant.


  1. TPO do love their symphonic cycles. It must be a bit over ten years ago that they and Lim Yao last did all the Sibelius symphonies. Very enjoyable if was too.

  2. have a look here

    1. So, our essayist in Singapore was doing a bit of plagiarism! So sad she copied something which is not quite right!!!

  3. I'm told that plagiarism is very common in Singapore. Instinctively I feel that well written but plagiarised programme notes are wrong, even though more useful than original but badly written. But that is not so different from students whose interpretation is based on copying a preferred recording.

    1. The issue of copyright seems largely unimportant in Singapore. The public broadcasting of music through podcasts, in shopping malls and in public areas, the wholescale copying of intellectual material, the copying and pasting of materials into programme notes, all of this seems the norm rather than the exception; but I may be wrong. (I can't find any discussion on this to copy and paste into my blog. Oooops!)