It’s been leading up to this, the past several months, as we have tracked the descent of the twentieth century into its mid-century madness through the course of its music. Alex Ross’s book is quite clever in this—but it seeks to illuminate the music of the century through its intellectual and social history. The focus at the events at the South Bank’s The Rest is Noise festival, however, seems to have gone off into the opposite direction—seeking to illuminate the intellectual and social history of that most complex of centuries through its music. This has been reinforced by the sheer amount of talking—mostly brilliant—that has characterized the weekend sessions. You could spend entire weekends just listening to talks and not attending any concerts, and you’d still come away inspired. But the music is the point, isn’t it?
Last weekend was the culmination of the past three months, with the Art of Fear as the theme—with a range of talks, from Anne Applebaum on the parallels between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, to Will Self on whether Ross’s attempts to keep classical music as high culture will work. In between we had talks on composers and musicians under Hitler (who did very well indeed, because so many of them got employment through the party), a discourse on that fraud and committed Nazi (in spite of her lifetime protestations) Leni Riefenstahl, a remarkable talk by music historian Erik Levi about the controlled world of the Nazi musical establishment, and a tour de force from Simon McBurney, founder of the Theatre de Complicite, on his staging of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
And how could we not end up here? Aside from the diversion to America, with its insanely great and unbelievably forgotten black composers, not to mention Gershwin and all that jazz, this has been an inexorable European arc from Vienna to the rise of Nationalism to Paris to Berlin to where we ended up before the summer break—Art of Fear. Schoenberg saw it coming—he cleared out in 1933 and headed off to Los Angeles. Others weren’t so prescient—Webern even thought the naturalism of the Nazis was appealing, for a bit, although he had originally opposed their rise. But, whatever, he stayed, as did Strauss—and both lived through the war.
And the music of course can’t help but reflect this madness. Messiaen, who gave us Quartet for the End of Time, composed while he was a prisoner of war at Görlitz—actually premiered at the camp in 1941. Prokoviev, who left Russia, only to return (just before the Terror) under a series of promises he came to understand quickly were completely hollow, and who churned out Peter and the Wolf and other middle-brow pieces under Stalin and Beria’s insistence that art, including music, be completely transparent to the common man (and woman, if they gave it a thought at all, which is doubtful.) But who still managed to give us the totally gripping War Sonatas, as emotive a set of piano pieces as has ever been composed, admirably performed by the Russian pianist Denis Koshukhin. And Shostakovich, who didn’t leave, and who lived through the 900-day Siege of Leningrad to deliver the Leningrad Symphony, which may have turned the war—it certainly turned Russia at the time. Shostakovich later gave us his Tenth Symphony, like the impact of the war itself a portrayal of the wreckage that surrounded him that leaves no listener unscathed—what Robert Samuels characterized as the musical embodiment of total war. All the time their friends as associates were disappearing into Stalin’s gulag (or worse) maw—including Prokoviev’s wife after his death. The art of fear indeed—it’s impossible to imagine what this was like if you weren’t part of it. And some of the audience members were descendents of those who were.
Both Prokoviev and Shostakovich lived in dread of two things—the phone call from Stalin himself in the middle of the night, and the sounds of footsteps on the stairs. Shostakovich even kept a suitcase permanently packed and slept on the landing so that his family wouldn’t be disturbed when the footsteps eventually came. The fact that they didn’t is no small irony, considering the tens and tens of thousands for whom they did come. But Stalin….ah, Stalin, who was reputed to have listened to every LP issued in the Soviet Union at the time, inscribing comments on the dust jacket. What could you do with him? Nothing—but what he could do with you was terrible indeed.
And Hitler? He used to prattle on about music while he played it to a captive audience. You couldn’t shut him up, apparently. Like Stalin, he had strong feelings about what he did and didn’t like. And, of course, he made them known. Unlike Stalin, he couldn’t care less about the common man, especially if the common man were a Jew or a Slav or, indeed, anyone not an Aryan. So, Wagner, of course. And, on the opposite side, the “degenerate” music of negro and Jewish musicians. “Degenerate” doesn’t quite capture the proper meaning of the German term, Entarte, which was also applied aggressively in the visual arts. It’s more like “Abnormal.” Hitler even arranged for a major exhibition in 1937 of “Degenerate Art,” in contrast with the approved art of the regime, which comes across as Aryan socialist realism. One constantly thinks of how different the world would be if Hitler had only been accepted by art school.
And yet the Nazi music program contained a number of contradictions. Who was permitted, and who was not? Surprisingly, to me, anyway, Stravisnksy was not only permitted, he actually went to Germany in 1938 to record Jeu de cartes, which he had recently premiered in Paris. It turns out that Stravinsky may have had some fascist sympathies—he was an admirer of Mussolini, for example. Who knew? Who else was permitted? Bartok, who in spite of his anti-fascist writings was never banned in Germany—in fact, some of his music was performed up to 1943. Conversely, Jewish composers, of course, were completely banned—as were Jewish musicians, Jewish conductors, and anyone involved in the music business who was Jewish. Like other trades, unemployment was high for musicians following the Wall Street crash that devastated the German economy—plus musicians were also being put out of business by talking movies. So anti-semitism took a particularly strong hold among the music unions.
But the entire culture was rife. We earlier heard from Yvonne Sherratt, author of Hitler’s Philosophers—and there were indeed some, especially Heidegger, who was a Nazi party member from 1933, and who never resigned from the party. (And was Hannah Arendt’s lover, which I still, after al these years, can’t quite get my head around.) But, as Sherratt noted, this was all part of a wider effort by the Nazi party to co-opt intellectuals into the party, to give the Nazi project an intellectual veneer from the halls of the university, and elsewhere. And it worked.
As historian Frederick Taylor pointed out several weeks ago, it was the upper middle classes—the rentier class—that had suffered the most economically under Weiemar, and who stood to benefit the most from Hitler. And this was the class that was most receptive to the resurgence of anti-semitism that was getting institutionalized in the universities, the arts, and the sciences. Jews were banned form teaching in 1936, and Heidegger was certainly as helpful as anyone else was in ushering Jews out of the philosophical academy. It wasn’t just the humanities, either. Hitler, and those who supported him, had a scientific conviction to their visions. There really were valiant efforts to prove the genetic superiority of the Aryan and Nordic races. “Purity” was a critical element of all this. But it applied to the arts as well, including music. Eugenics took on a new life. And the daily decent into national madness kept accelerating.
Nearly all the talks delivered over the past several months have been wonderful, for a variety of reasons. Some speakers, like Shirley Williams, have such life experiences that you just hang on to every word. Some, like John Grey on totalitarianism, just know so much that you want to sit here for another hour or two and soak it up. But Will Self’s seemed to me to be the perfect rounding up of the past several months. Fortunately, he wrote a Guardian column that more or less presents the talk as Self presented it, and it’s worth a look. Because Self points out something that has been sort of an undercurrent here, and in Ross’s book as well.
Very simply, Stalin and Hitler—especially Hitler—were music lovers. And this is still treated as a moral failure of, well, something. How could these people be music lovers? But Hitler and Stalin were human beings, and many human beings, of all stripes, love music. Self wants Ross to stop trying to treat music as a moral force. It isn’t. The German writer Meike Ziervogel, who wrote a fictional biography of Magda Goebbels (Magda), made the same point in her brief talk—it’s a mistake to demonize these people as monsters, because that removes them from ordinary human experience. But they weren’t monsters, they were human beings—just particularly odious ones with huge amounts of power, and, as it happens, a love of, and taste for, music. Like the high Nazi party officials who listened to Bach after a hard day of condemning thousands to death. Hitler attended Bayreuth annually. Stalin was a regular at the Bolshoi.
And yet, as both Self and Ross point out, music can be a remarkable force for something. Consider Self on Ross and Shostakovich:
Ross’s doom-laden narrative of Shostakovich and his music under Stalin’s regime is, perhaps, the most dramatic portion of The Rest Is Noise. His careful readings of Shostakovich’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies represent the clearest possible refutation of the idea that music is a non-representational art form. Indeed, when Ross writes of the response to the finale of the Fifth, with its listeners – many of whom were numb with grief from the loss of family members and friends to the Terror – jerked to their feet, while its conductor, Mravinsky, then held the score above his head throughout the long ovation, it’s hard not to wish – albeit perversely – for a society and a culture in which music truly mattered this much. Ross writes of the sarcasm and even the irony detectable in many of the pieces Shostakovich composed during this period, but also hedges his non-representational bets by reiterating that since it’s difficult to know what any given piece of music means, it remains still more problematic to claim that music can be mouthing one thing, while saying its diametric opposite.
And yet The Rest Is Noise paints with exemplary clarity the moral vacillations of Shostakovich and Strauss, and how those vacillations were depicted by their compositions during the late 1930s and into the second world war. When we reach the redemptive tale of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony No 7 – the microfilmed score flown out of the USSR to Tehran then around the war-torn world to be conducted by Toscanini in New York – we can only append to the author’s aperçu “The composer became a propaganda symbol for the allied cause,” the further observation that the piece itself also portrayed this cause. Leningraders heard Shostakovich’s Seventh for the first time under absurdly apt conditions, given – as Ross writes – that the composer intended to “record in almost stenographic fashion the emotions of battle”. The depleted Leningrad Radio Orchestra had to be bolstered by soldier-players conscripted from the frontline (three of whom died during rehearsals), and in spite of the attempts of a German general to disrupt the performance, the defenders took the initiative with a heavy bombardment of the enemy positions, followed by the symphony, which howled out into the eerie quiet of no man’s land through loudspeakers.
Self is correct. Running through Ross’s book, and this whole series, has been the theme of—indeed, almost a longing for—a time when music meant something. Part of our fascination for the first half of the 20th century and its descent into evil and chaos is our perception—which I think this whole series has validated—that music, even in the century’s darkest hours, meant something, and it’s not clear that it does any longer. As Self casually noted as an aside, rock today is the rock of sixty years ago—“two guitars, a bass, and drums—only worse.” Sadly, he’s right. I’m hoping the second half of this program will help me explain to myself why so much “classical” music of the second half of the 20th century—say, the music of Philip Glass, for example—is music I’m completely indifferent to. Ross tries hard to make me see why it’s important, no doubt. But I’m still waiting. Maybe Adorno was correct—“There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.”
But that’s not really it either. People still write poetry, some of it great poetry. And people still compose music, some of it great as well. But where I can recognize some great poetry of the past four or five decades, it’s harder with music, because the genre lines have blurred so badly. Is Steve Reich a great composer? Well, he seems to be an important one, because a lot of people tell me that, but great? I have no idea. And if I have choice between Steve Reich and Joe Zawinul, or Philip Glass and Charles Mingus, I’ve already made that decision. So that’s the problem I need to get at. I want to see how Ross deals with it, and I want to see how this festival deals with it.
A few words need to be said here about the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who has been the workhorse for most of the performances throughout the past several months. The LPO is one of the resident orchestras at South Bank, and they have outdone themselves here. There have been some sterling conductors, but the main nod of the head needs to go to Vladimir Jurowsky, their Music Director, who is presumably responsible picking many of the pieces performed the past four months. The LPO has been just a delight, even though most of the music has hardly been delightful—quite the reverse. But this has been an extraordinarily difficult several months of orchestral movements in the dark, really—this has been quite difficult music much of the time (event the tedious Rachmaninoff symphony and piano concertos are demanding on an orchestra, simply from their length). And they have worked hard to pull this off, and indeed they have. A remarkable program so far, delivered with superb skill and aplomb by the LPO and the range of soloists they have recruited. Kudos all around.
So we’re on summer break now, which is a relief, because I need a couple of months to digest all this. Sometimes the days were so packed with new stuff I didn’t know that my brain hurt. But it’s been a great event, and a thrill to be a participant. It’s difficult to see this event being created and enacted anywhere but London. New York? No, I don’t think so—outside of Lincoln Center, there’s really no central place big enough with enough rooms for the side events. And New York just doesn’t have the intellectual firepower that London has for surveying the past century—you need someone who was there, and New York wasn’t really there (although, as did London, it inherited much of what was left). Los Angeles? Possibly, but again you just don’t have the people that London has (or has ready access to on the continent.) Once again, I feel blessed to be here.