There’s a myth, in the popular imagination, that classical music is higher, better and more exalted than much of the rest of life. This extends to the idea that classical musicians must be on the side of the good and true and right. And when they fail to deliver on this promise, reactions range from confusion to condemnation.
This quote from Ann Midgette’s recent Washington Post article highlights the paradoxical state of classical music. Even though, as she explains, the positive neurological effects of listening to classical music—sometimes known as the Mozart Effect—have been debunked, the corrosive idea that this genre is somehow morally better, or even superior, to other forms of music lives on. And it’s this belief, a positive stereotype of sorts, that places today’s top artists in a difficult position. The list of classical musicians who have historically risked much to speak out for peace and tolerance is long (Pablo Casals, Daniel Barenboim, Mstislav Rostropovich, Joyce DiDonato). Yet the group of musicians who have either tacitly or openly supported authoritarian regimes or espoused questionable messages may be equally lengthy and more enigmatic (Richard Wagner, Herbert von Karajan, Wilhelm Furtwängler). These are artists we’re still grappling to understand. (I know these are mostly male examples, but much of the 20th century was dominated by powerful male figures in classical music. I’ll have more to say in a future post about Malcolm Gladwell’s idea of pioneers, pariahs, and tokens in relation to this topic.)
Midgette pins this unequal analysis to our selective memory:
Posterity is by no means as harsh as contemporary public judgment, tending to vilify where it’s easy — the soprano Germaine Lubin effectively lost her career thanks to her willingness to perform for the Nazis in occupied France — and overlook where it’s convenient (Herbert von Karajan).
It’s true that nationalism was a liberating trait in much 19th century music, especially countries like Russian and the Czech Republic where artists sought to break from the towering German and Austria canon of composers like Bach and Beethoven and marry an art music language with folk culture. However, nationalism in art, when taken too far, becomes propaganda and grows bigotry. (See Philip Hensher on problems in Russian Nationalism.) How can we consciously gloss over “convenient” artists while shining the spotlight on easy targets like Wagner and how his music was used after his death, over which he had no control? I don’t mean to play down his clearly anti-semitic views but we need to play fair in the world of criticism.
Artists are people and it would be wrong to hold them to superhuman standards of morality. Some will risk their careers or even their lives to promote the unifying power of the arts; others will remain publicly silent, continuing their work from the sidelines. For example, the opera star Anna Netrebko believes that an artist shouldn’t “meddle in politics.” Public silence, however, does not necessitate agreement. Look to the complex relationships Strauss or Shostakovich had with their overseers as case studies in the path of least resistance—or perhaps self preservation.
Most artists working in the West today have never been freer to realize their vision—largely unbound to wealthy patronage or institutional approval. The cellist Yo-Yo Ma perfectly encapsulates what I believe is the role of the contemporary artist. Take, for example, his STEAM proposal where he inserts one critical ‘A’ into the hotly debated curriculum of STEM. He believes, as do I, that the interdependence of our world, at the nexus of collaboration and innovation between science and the arts, is the key to a thriving society.
Take the immortal Bach Suites as a study of globalization:
At the core of any cellist’s repertoire are the Cello Suites by Bach. At the heart of each suite is a dance movement called the sarabande.
The dance originated with music of the North African Berbers, where it was a slow, sensual dance. It next appeared in Spain, where it was banned because it was considered lewd and lascivious. Spaniards brought it to the Americas, but it also traveled on to France, where it became a courtly dance. In the 1720s, Bach incorporated the sarabande as a movement in his Cello Suites. Today, I play Bach, a Paris-born American musician of Chinese parentage. So who really owns the sarabande? Each culture has adopted the music, investing it with specific meaning, but each culture must share ownership: it belongs to us all.
Culture belongs to us all and we are its stewards.
What for you is the role of the artist in the 21st century? Do musicians have a moral obligation to use their influence (soft power) in the political sphere? How can we reconcile disparities between an artist’s work and what we know about their life? I’m curious what you think!