Thursday, January 5, 2012

Music and Conscience

Much of what is written about the ethical or political dimensions of music is rather superficial. But here is one article that is not. It takes on forthrightly the questions surrounding the use of music during the Third Reich and how musicians dealt with their exploitation--or rejection--according to the needs of the Nazi state. the end of the war it was impossible to claim that art-music was intrinsically improving or ennobling. Although it might have soothed a mass-murderer's savage breast, it had also steadied his gun. And if this realization encouraged a more mechanistic, less spiritual appraisal of music's power, it also raised the possibility that music itself had betrayed society. Given the country's rich intellectual history, its sophistication and cultural pre-eminence, the question of how Hitler had managed to win over the German people and enact Nazi policy became a leitmotif of post-war discussion.
The essay is rich in details:
It is not entirely surprising that most German musicians, faced with opportunity on the one hand and the risk of reprisal on the other, chose something between compromise and complete capitulation. True altruism and heroism are rarities, particularly during times of economic hardship, unbridled fascism and civic paranoia, when neighbors and family members are encouraged to spy on one another, and a network of secret police probes life at its most quotidian. The gifted young pianist Karlrobert Kreiten, whose German tours had provoked comparison with Walter Gieseking, was hanged for listening to a BBC news broadcast. In addition to this capital offense, Kreiten had idly shared his criticism of Hitler with his landlady, who promptly informed the Gestapo.
I encourage you to read the whole thing as the amount of collaboration with an inherently evil regime and the amount of rationalizing and back-pedaling after the war was remarkable. A cautionary tale, indeed.
Another instance of the collision of music and politics is seen in the career of Shostakovich who, living his whole life under the Soviet regime and much of it while Stalin was in charge, lived in fear every day. His response was to attempt to write music--at least the more public symphonies--in such a way as to appeal to the general audience while following, or not breaking too obviously, the precepts of 'socialist realism'. While certainly not a dissident--that would have been a death-sentence under Stalin--Shostakovich did manage to capture the torment and desolation of life in the Soviet Union.

The article by Simon Wynberg is a fine one, but he makes the assertion that music essentially has no moral content:
Of course music can express a variety of emotions and conjure up all manner of associations, which are generated not only by the music itself but also by the circumstances of its performance. But whatever these qualities may be, they are disconnected from concepts of innate good or evil.
But while this is true of most music, I wonder if it is true of all music? Isn't there some music that seems to possess a kind of moral authority? In this category I want to place some of the music of Shostakovich, particularly the Fifth Symphony. I again want to mention an extraordinary essay by Richard Taruskin that captures the complexity of the issue: Richard Taruskin: "Public lies and unspeakable truth: interpreting Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony", David Fanning (ed.): Shostakovich Studies, 1995, pp. 17-56.

Try as I might, I cannot quite imagine what Stalin and Molotov might have thought if they were at the first performance. We do know from the testimony of Rostropovich that the ovation from the audience lasted over half an hour...

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