Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Music and Morality

Reading a review of a new book on Beethoven, I ran across this passage:
Though Dr. Broyles does not say so, World War II essentially shattered the notion of classical music as inherently moral. It’s hard to watch film of an orchestra playing Beethoven for an audience of uniformed Nazis and continue to believe that the music has some special moral power. True, the Allies made use of Beethoven too: the opening motto of his Fifth Symphony — da-da-da-dum — is a Morse code V, for victory, and that became the Allied battle cry. Still, the Beethoven as an Ethical Force industry collapsed after the war.
 The idea that prior to World War II, classical music had a certain moral authority that it lost afterwards is one put forth in a number of places such as Alex Ross' book "The Rest Is Noise" where we find this passage:
In the wake of Hitler, classical music suffered not only incalculable physical losses--composers murdered in concentration camps, future talents killed on the beaches of Normandy and on the eastern front, opera houses and concert halls destroyed, emigres forgotten in foreign lands--but a deeper loss of moral authority ... by the 1970s the juxtaposition of "great music" and barbarism has become a cinematic cliche: in A Clockwork Orange, a young thug fantasizes ultraviolently to the strains of Beethoven's Ninth...
I would add to that the scenes of Hannibal Lecter dreamily enjoying Bach's Goldberg Variations before committing another atrocity.

But I think there is a serious logical error occurring here that is very unfortunate. In a sense it is a case of blaming the victim: evil men used classical music to gild their evil ideologies so that means that classical music loses its moral authority? How does that make sense? Guilt by association? Wasn't every orchestra in the world playing Beethoven before, during and after the war? How is it that only the performances by the Nazis count?

One defense is to say that classical music is formalist: it doesn't actually contain any moral messages, but is just a structure of sound. The last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with its text by Schiller would seem to argue against that. I would also venture that the music of Beethoven--among many others--displays a humanity, an expressiveness, a seriousness that could be considered a kind of moral force.

This is a book-length argument, of course, and I merely hint at it. But I would be interested in reading any comments on the subject.

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