Alex Ross, the music critic of The New Yorker, always has interesting things to say about classical music. In a recent essay written for Symphony magazine, Mr. Ross writes about the role of politics in classical music by posing the question: Do musicians and composers have an obligation to speak out on political matters?
He mentions various political controversies involving classical music celebrities, such as protests at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera over Valery Gergiev’s strong support for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Critics have “chided” Gustavo Dudamel for not denouncing the current regime in Venezuela, and Peter Gelb at the Met, criticized for withdrawing a movie theater presentation of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, was accused of yielding to pressure from right-wing pro-Israeli groups. He goes on to mention several musicians who have stood up to political situations, such as Daniel Barenboim’s work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra that seeks common ground among Palestinian and Israeli youth.
Composers frequently write about political events, especially opera composers (Mr. Ross refers to operas about Malcolm X, Harvey Milk, Muhammad Ali, etc. as “CNN opera” after critic Peter G. Davis). He cites Steven Stucky’s oratorio about LBJ, Tania Leon’s opera about Little Rock with a libretto by Henry Louis Gates,Jr., and Derrick Wang’s piece about Justices Scalia and Ginsburg, who share a love of opera but little else, as examples of politically-motivated (or at least politically-driven) compositions.
Mr. Ross reminds us that music has been political since the beginning, with the prime example being Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, originally dedicated to Napolean. Or perhaps Wagner, “still the most politically divisive figure in musical history.”
In modern times, he reminisces about Leonard Bernstein’s monologues at Lincoln Center as he introduced a composition. And he nods his hat to Kurt Masur, who carefully used his stature to speak out politically. He extols Masur’s performance of Brahms’ German Requiem after 911, where he and the musicians refused to acknowledge the applause − “that silent, motionless gesture of remembrance said far more than any political speech of the day.”
He describes an “effective” political composition from Phil Kline, who used the words of Donald Rumsfeld at press conferences (“As we know, there are known knowns…”) to create Rumsfield Songs, which “captured Rumsfeld’s flippancy and indifference.
The changing political landscape is another topic Mr. Ross addresses − how Copland wrote Fanfare for the Common Man as a tribute to New Deal politician Henry Wallace and yet it was played at Reagan’s inauguration, how Beethoven’s works were performed under authoritarian governments in the early 19th century.
In considering the demonstrations against Valery Gergiev because of Russia’s anti-gay policy and its encroachment on neighboring countries, he poses a situation where a Russian audience might protest against an American musician because of “America’s drone warfare or financial imperialism.”
In closing, Mr. Ross again calls our attention to the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and suggests that we “need a space of discussion that allows for political passion without degenerating into drastic analogies of character assassination. Instead, we should prize the cosmopolitan identity of contemporary classical music, in which musicians of radically diverse background find themselves playing side by side.”
As always, Mr. Ross is well worth reading.