Music and Politics

I just had the chance to listen to all of Valery Gergiev’s “defiant” concert in South Ossetia. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around everything that has happened and is happening in that part of the world, and certainly news like this only leaves me more confused.

There have been a handful of responses including this one over at An Unamplified Voice:

“In its own little way, perhaps this bit of propagandizing is as much demonstrative muscle-flexing as the rape of Georgia itself. For as Europe’s dependence on Russian petroleum has convinced Putin of his local invincibility, so perhaps arts organizations’ reliance on Russian talent, attendance, and support will keep them from responding to this grossly — and offensively — political gesture.”

I love Philip Kennicott’s take on music and politics in a recent Washington Post article. Using the concert in South Ossetia as a springboard, he digs a little deeper. There’s plenty of talk on how musicians use politics in their work, and Kennicott writes:

“Politicians use classical music rather like they use white-tie galas and red carpets. It adds dignity and intensifies an occasion, making it more serious and profound. But the music heard at political events is all too often ignored, despite its often huge symbolic importance.”

He mentions Bernstein conducting Beethoven 9 in Berlin in 1989 and Barenboim conducting Wagner in Israel in 2001. And now Gergiev conducts Shostakovich in Ossetia. These are certainly examples of when that symbolic importance was obvious, but it’s still fascinating to me how all of these examples bring not just a political/cultural statement but also a whole lot of history–for better or worse.

Despite all of the coverage on the NY Phil concert in North Korea, until now I never heard anything about the conductor-less performance of Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. Maybe I just missed it. Kennicott writes:

“Although it’s a popular encore for the Philharmonic, especially on tour, it was an extraordinary gesture to play the ‘Candide’ overture without someone ‘in charge’ for an audience of dark-suited automatons, standing and clapping in eerie unison. Bernstein’s overture (inspired by Voltaire) is fast paced and difficult, and to perform it without a conductor underscores a basic fact: Unity and collective discipline can be had without submitting to authoritarian power.”

Whether or not that was the intention, it’s quite compelling to me.

Excuse the leap between contexts here, but it actually made me think of Madonna’s own bit of recent propaganda. CNN reports:

“During a concert in Cardiff, Wales, images of the Arizona senator were shown alongside Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe, destruction and global warming on a screen above the singer.” Read it all here.

I simply chuckled and rolled my eyes when people took serious offense, but it did make realize my own bias towards free artistic expression and of course my support for Barack Obama.

So all of this reminds me just how messy things get when you mix politics and art. But more importantly it reminds me how glorious the combination between the two can be.

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~ by ohactually on August 29, 2008.

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