Life & Liberty: Musical Politics, Political Music

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Music has become ever more entwined with politics in the course of the 20th century. Perhaps this should come as no surprise. After all, what art form, or, for that matter, what significant aspect of human endeavor, has escaped the ubiquitous politicization which has plagued modern times? Still, there remains an element of the incredible in the spectacle of warring ideologies which has given rise in the West to crusades of "progressive" critics and academics against "reactionary" composers and listeners, and in the East to purges of "formalist" or "decadent" conspirators against the public taste. This is a strange fate for an art which served in the 18th century as courtly entertainment and in the 19th century as a vehicle for the self-expression of romantic individualists—an art which necessarily stands apart from real life, possessing none of the representational directness of painting or the symbolic precision of literature.

Compounding this irony is another: proclamations of musical freedom have issued from the same intellectual quarters as those doctrines of "scientific" socialism which have demanded a politico-economic order of unprecedented restrictiveness, while partisans of individual liberty have often seen the "liberation of the dissonance" and the erosion of formal traditions as decadent descents into irrationalism. The bounds of emotional expression have expanded to encompass violent extremes welcomed by the "progressives," and many people who view the 19th century as the ideal have nonetheless deplored this expansion as a perverse or wicked departure from universally valid standards of beauty.

There may be less to this contrast than meets the eye. Supporters of individual freedom have all too often found themselves playing the role of reactionary, not out of any exaggerated respect for tradition as such, but simply because the tradition of America happens to be largely one of reason and liberty. As for the left, it notoriously seizes every opportunity to disguise its every raid on remaining personal liberty as the creation of some new, previously unknown freedom.

There is clearly an element of this sort of double-talk at work in the case of the Second Viennese School's 12-tone system, which forcibly "frees" the composer from the restraints of traditional tonality by imposing a straitjacket of rules which makes the establishment of key not only dispensable but impossible. The freedom thereby created is not freedom from arbitrary standards set up by human authorities but freedom from the nature of hearing itself—just as political freedom from human-agitated aggression has been increasingly pushed aside in favor of freedom from wants imposed by nature, such as hunger and ignorance. In each case, attainment of the new "freedom" requires abolition of the old.

But what about composers such as Mahler, Bartok, and Stravinsky? In their case it seems to be genuine musical libertarianism which is denounced by traditionalists, including many political libertarians—especially those influenced by Ayn Rand. These composers' violations of traditional restraints on tonality, dissonance, rhythmic freedom, and formal structure are attacked as crude and atavistic, and the emotions expressed in their works are pronounced inappropriate or even evil.

A case in point is Kyle Rothweiler's article, "Stravinsky: Fabulist of Evil" (REASON, November 1985). According to Rothweiler, Stravinsky's corrupt values, as both a modernist and a Christian, made him impotent to express anything but evil. Rothweiler asserts that Stravinsky reached the peak of his development with the portrayal of primitive savagery in The Rite of Spring and declined thereafter into stale formalism and empty religiosity. Subsequent letters to the editor agreed that Stravinsky's work reflects "the collapse of Victorian presuppositions and standards, and the onset of amoral and immoral totalitarian bestiality" and complained that his work "assaults the ear with senseless brutality."

It would be easy enough to defend Stravinsky from this attack simply on the basis of the many works that don't fit into its scheme: the exuberant Petrushka, the elegantly cool Apollo and Orpheus, the charming Pulcinella and Jeu de Cartes, etc. Even The Rite of Spring is not such an obvious case. Spring really is a period of quite literal renewal, and one need not be a savage in order to celebrate it; the concluding sacrifice is a dance of ecstasy, not an unwilling victimization. But such a defense misses a deeper point which applies to far more than just Stravinsky. Might a view based on the morality of the emotions expressed in a piece of music merely serve to justify evading the responsibility to face a challenging new style? Is emotional expression of primary value in music?

In a famous exchange with the conductor Serge Koussevitsky, Stravinsky himself asserted that music is incapable of expressing anything. Few have taken this claim very seriously—either that it is true or that Stravinsky even thought it is true. Obviously there is a sense in which it is absurd: a great deal of music, including Stravinsky's, successfully evokes a whole range of feelings and images. But there is another sense in which Stravinsky was right. Though music can express things, that is not what makes it music. In other words, music qua music is not expression but ordered sound. To illustrate the significance of this distinction, consider the case of another modern Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich.

For decades, Shostakovich was represented in the West as a loyal communist and his music as the ultimate expression of official Soviet aesthetic doctrine. His symphonies were accompanied by programs relating them to colorful events in the history of the revolutionary struggle and invariably ended in noisily optimistic finales proclaiming the "dawn of humanity" under Lenin and Stalin. The apparently naive bombast of these works won them little critical favor in the West, where more praise was given to his more privately expressive string quartets and song cycles, in which the main concern was usually a typically Russian obsession with death.

All this changed with the posthumous publication in the West of a book purporting to be Shostakovich's memoirs, as related to Solomon Volkov, entitled Testimony. The testimony turned out to be a bitter contempt for Soviet communism and everything connected with it. The supposedly optimistic bombast of his symphonic finales was revealed as deliberate and savage irony. Hidden programs were reported. For example, the 11th symphony, subtitled "The Year 1905" and assertedly celebrating the martyrs of an abortive prelude to the 1917 revolution, was described as in fact a bitter commentary on the 1956 Hungarian uprising which immediately preceded its composition.

Western liberals, always reluctant to believe that the Soviet people were not just as fooled by Stalin as they were themselves, were quick to question the book's authenticity. But its account of the significance of Shostakovich's music has been confirmed more recently by such authoritative sources as Mstislav Rostropovich and the composer's son Maxim. The great Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya has gone so far as to write in her memoirs that "so long as people have not been forced down on all fours, Shostakovich's art will serve forever to unmask the false, base, and cynical communist ideology."

These revelations have sparked new interest in Shostakovich's works and a thorough revaluation. Yet one hears exactly the same notes, melodies, harmonies, and rhythms now as before. If his symphonies were emptily bombastic before, when they were optimistically communist, why should they be less so now that they are despairingly anticommunist? Or, more to the point, if we can find deep musical individuality and vitality in these works now, didn't they have that before, whatever extra-musical associations they carried?

If the "message" of a piece is so utterly ambiguous that it can support such totally opposed interpretations, then it can hardly be the "message" that accounts for its interest. It must be something else which does not change and is not ambiguous. But clearly this is just the sounds themselves, heard as sounds.

A friend of mine hears The Rite of Spring as an expression of creative industrial dynamism and thereby finds it a tremendously powerful and exciting piece. Yet these are the very same sounds which Kyle Rothweiler hears as an expression of pure evil. Anyone who doubts the possibility of the former interpretation should listen to the work and imagine it as accompaniment to the action in Hank Rearden's steel mills in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. They might be astonished at how well it fits the role. No doubt Stravinsky himself would not approve—but, after all, the man is dead.

The point is that good music can stand many extra-musical interpretations while remaining in essence the same music. Conversely, good intentions alone do not make for good music: one can imagine works produced by perfectly rational people expressing all the "right" emotions about all the "right" subjects which would yet be perfectly dull. Clearly there is an element in music—the essential element—which has nothing to do with moral or political values. This element is sensual vividness, which can only be known by experience and cannot be theorized into existence where it is missing or out of existence where it is present. It ultimately matters not at all whether a composer's intentions were rational or irrational, noble or base, good or evil. All that matters is this: does his work surprise us anew with the miraculous power and beauty in the sensual experience of hearing? In the case of both Stravinsky and Shostakovich, the answer can only be yes.

In this profound sense, all worthwhile music affirms sensuality even if the composer intended otherwise—just as the works of writers like Milton or painters like Bosch subvert their own explicit intentions through the intoxicating brilliance of their portrayal of that which they think they are fighting against. Music, being more abstract than the other arts, achieves this paradox most easily: there is no obstacle to forgetting what the composer intended and simply listening to the music.

In the end, music best liberates the human spirit not by submitting itself to the demands of ideological struggle but by liberating itself from all laws originating other than in its own nature as affirmation of human sensuality.

Stephan Burton is a philosophy student at the University of California at Berkeley.

NEXT: Viewpoint: A Gusher for the Politicians

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