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Musicians Who Knew the Political Score

Although classical music rises above ideology, some notable practitioners certainly could sound off.

September 04, 2003|Jay Nordlinger | Jay Nordlinger is managing editor of National Review and music critic for that magazine as well as for the New Criterion and the New York Sun.

As a rule, classical musicians aren't great ones for politics and political causes. They tend to leave that to rockers or -- more traditionally -- to folk musicians ("Joe Hill" and all that).

So it was newsworthy when L.A. Philharmonic conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen held a music festival in Stockholm last month to call attention to the health of the Baltic Sea. "Culture depends on economy; economy depends on environment," he said. Therefore, the state of water "is absolutely the musician's business."

Over the years, most musicians have stayed out of the politics business. They believe that the world of politics sullies art and that music, and musicians, should be universal -- above the fray. Music dwells in its own realm, unfreighted with any ideology.

Still, Salonen is hardly the first musician to dip into politics.

Beethoven famously dedicated his "Eroica" symphony to Napoleon because he thought that the Corsican would break authoritarian regimes to liberate the individual. But, just as famously, he crossed out the dedication when Napoleon crowned himself emperor, showing himself to be just another power-seeking autocrat.

Giuseppe Verdi got in his political licks, becoming a champion of Italian unification and Italian self-rule during the mid-19th century. His chorus from the opera "Nabucco" -- "Va, pensiero" -- became a national hymn, and he was appointed a senator in the Italian Parliament in 1875.

In 1919, the pianist Ignace Paderewski agreed to be prime minister of Poland. He had long been a national hero, a unifying figure and a patriot. He attended the Paris Peace Talks that concluded World War I. The story is told that the French premier, Georges Clemenceau, asked him, "Are you a cousin of the pianist?"

"No," replied Paderewski, "I am, in fact, the pianist."

"And now you're prime minister?" Clemenceau asked.

"Yes," Paderewski answered.

The Frenchman sighed: "What a comedown."

There were musical Nazis, sadly: the conductor Herbert von Karajan, the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who made five feature films for Joseph Goebbels. In the years after World War II, it would prove impossible to denazify music altogether. The Vienna Philharmonic was one institution known to harbor a few, and in the 1960s Leonard Bernstein would greet them at rehearsal with a cheery, "And how are my favorite Nazis today?"

In the Soviet Union, there were musicians who persecuted, musicians who were persecuted and musicians who occupied a kind of gray area. The composer Dmitri Kabalevsky was a union chief and a terrible enforcer for the Soviet state. He caused his fellow musicians to tremble before him -- a scoundrel. But his music may be enjoyed simply as music, with no political taint. (Kabalevsky wrote most charmingly for children.)

Here in the U.S., there were many anti-Communist musicians -- but not necessarily home-grown. They tended to be emigres from countries over which darkness had fallen, men who knew what totalitarianism was.

The story is told that Eugene Ormandy (Hungarian-born) wanted to fire a couple of his Philadelphia Orchestra players when they balked at playing the national anthem during the Vietnam War.

But there were a great many other musicians who identified with the left.

Aaron Copland was always coy about whether he was a Communist Party member, but he was certainly a sympathizer -- penning agitprop and prattling on about "the great masses of the proletariat." Marc Blitzstein was very definitely a party member, enjoying a brief revival four years ago when Tim Robbins made "The Cradle Will Rock" -- a propaganda opera -- into a movie.

And Bernstein will always be associated with the term "radical chic" -- coined by Tom Wolfe after Bernstein hosted a fund-raiser for the Black Panthers at his Park Avenue duplex.

One especially sad case of politics against music is the career of Ruth Crawford Seeger. She was a brilliantly promising composer, and then she met folk guru Charles Seeger -- father of Pete -- and fell away from serious composition on the ideological grounds that it was "elitist." No more string quartets for her; only dumb ditties about Sacco and Vanzetti, etc. Her husband -- a columnist for the Daily Worker -- declared that "music is propaganda -- always propaganda -- and of the most powerful sort."


Music resists propaganda, and when propaganda overwhelms it, it ceases to be music, really. Music, certainly of the highest sort, will overcome any extra-musical attempt to claim it. Wagner was a grotesque anti-Semite -- but whose music did Theodor Herzl use at his major Zionist conferences? Wagner's, of course -- he would hire an orchestra to play it, for it was transcendental.

I close with my favorite musico-political anecdote, not widely known. Janos Starker -- the great Hungarian American cellist -- was to perform the Elgar concerto with the South Carolina Philharmonic in Columbia. The concert hall was "smoke-free," and he was told that he could not have a cigarette even in his private dressing room.

So he said to the orchestra -- assembled for rehearsal -- "I have lived through fascism, and I have lived through communism. But I cannot abide the petty tyranny into which this country is falling, and neither should you."

With that, he left -- left rehearsal and left town. The orchestra was silent for a minute. Then a clarinetist began to play "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

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