The Rest is Noise (6)—Descent into the Maelstrom

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.

7 replies »

  1. Wonderful piece, Wufnik. I’m currently reading Arthur Danto’s “After the End of Art” which touches on many of these same themes – albeit in the area of visual art, particularly painting and its relationship to the 20th century. His notion that the 20th century was the century of manifestos – in art, politics, philosophy, pretty much everywhere, resonated through my reading of this. I hope in my review of Danto’s book (really his series of lectures given at the National Gallery in D.C. in the early 90’s) I can do half as good a job explaining the complicated intellectual, philosophical, and artistic currents and issues that affected Modernism and Post-Modernism in the visual arts as you have done with music here.

    And, for what it’s worth, I’m with you – these days I choose jazz or classic rock over contemporary “serious” (i.e., classical) work. Give me Miles Davis or “Pet Sounds” over Glass or Reich any time….

  2. Thanks Jim. I haven’t read the Danto book, but I see his stuff in the NYRB frequently, and he seems like a bright guy.

    Yeah, isms. There wasn’t much of that pre-war–although there was Schoenberg and his school, but really, when you think about 20th century music, it had little impact outside of film scores.

    And I have a theory about what’s happened with pop, or rock, or whatever, and why Self is right–it’s the same as it’s been the past sixty years, just worse. And it has to do with the limits of the guitar as compared with the piano–not as an instrument, but as a tool for composers. My next post will be on some of he American music in the festival, which of course includes Gershwin. And it just happens I just read Wilfred Sheed’s The World that George Created, about all the great pre (and even early post) war Broadway and film composers. Not just Gershwin, but Kern, Berlin, , Rogers, Porter, Loesser…the list goes on. And it’s funny–we all know their songs. We may not know who wrote what, and confuse Berlin and Cole Porter–but we recognize all these songs, because they’re distinctive. They’re great songs, that’s why.

    So what’s the deal? They all composed with the piano–that was the main tool. Even Berlin, who could barely play. But some–Gershwin, of course, but a number of others as well–were Carnegie hall level pianists. This all changed post-war. And it especially changed when rock came along. The guitar is a hugely versatile instrument–but it’s also limiting in a way that the piano is not.

    There are probably all sorts of holes in this. But I’m having fun with it.

  3. May be much to what you say, here, Wuf. Think about the Beatles for a moment: John was a competent pianist, Paul, the most musically talented member, is really pretty accomplished on that instrument, and both George and Ringo could play at least some. George is interesting in that he reached out for other stringed instruments such as the sitar and ukulele – and enriched his songwriting as a result. john’s most famous song (the ubiquitous “Imagine”) is a piano song and many of Paul’s best, most interesting pieces (“Fool on the Hill,” “Let It Be,” “Lady Madonna,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “My Love” – and I’m speaking here of music/melody) are piano songs. So your reference to “the Great American Songbook,” as it’s referred to by marketers/fading rock stars (“Stewart – paging Mr. Roderick Stewart”) is well chosen.

    Although I’d argue that it’s less the instrument that’s held back guitar composition growth than the “movements” in rock that have hurt its songwriting (re: punk and its children college/indie rock with their fetishization of badly played garage level music is self-limiting). Celebrating instrumentalist ineptitude seems to be where rock went – to its own disadvantage. (In a weird way I’ve just explained Adele, wherein the Brits have been able to continue celebrating great chops through R&B – Paul Weller comes to mind…. Interestingly, it’s happening here, too, we just haven’t had a true break through star yet – and may not until the execs choking the music biz to death get desperate enough to take a chance on talent again….)

    When one looks at work by Jeff Beck, Robert Fripp, and others, one sees guitar composition’s possibilities better – though since these guys are not singers, maybe that doesn’t make the point. And Bert Jansch (alas!) and your own fave Richard Thompson show that folk/rock allows for magical melodic constructions. One wonders, a little sadly, how Nick Drake might have helped these guys push each other had he lived. And George continued to compose interestingly on the guitar (and other stringed instruments) until his untimely passing.

    (Interesting to note that with the exception of George none of these guys were/are mega-watt rock stars – something there I haven’t put a finger on, but I bet you note it, too. Think about what’s happened to Keef or Pete or Jimmy Page…more about iconography than music at this point…)

    Don’t care about the holes – let’s enjoy it! 🙂

  4. I tend to agree. There are a couple of other things, too, but really, the bottom line is that while there have been some great songwriters since rock came along, they are few and far between, and their output, with the Lennon/McCartney exception, barely matches the range of stuff that Porter and Berlin and Gershwin put out, on a regular bases. Part of this comes from the fact that these people, who were all friends, did actively compete with each other. And it was a business, of course–you have to get hits to make money, and that’s what these guys did–they wrote songs as a living. Few ever performed. But this was a period of incredible creative energy for songs that hasn’t been matched since. I’ll have more about this in the next post.

    On Beck, this is interesting. I put him up there with Akkerman, Hendrix and Allman as defining guitarists. With Allman, we’ll never know what would have emerged over subsequent decades. But Akkerman and Beck keep doing new stuff, which itself is significant. But it’s instrumental stuff, and before electric instruments you didn’t really have anything like what you can do with modern electric guitars and a bass player and a drummer. It’s a particular form, unique to rock, and it’s because of the electric guitar. But there are very few players who do this well, or creatively enough to turn it into art the way Akkerman and Beck do regularly.

    Thompson is a bit different, I think, because he’s primarily a songwriter who also happens to be a great guitarist. There aren’t many of these either who reach this level, though. Elvis Costello, comes to mind. Dylan, perhaps the most obvious. But most of the great songwriters I can think of are folk artists, not rock stars, and I put Dylan into this category, even though he’s been a rocker for years. The best of all–Sandy Denny–was clearly a folkie who rocked from time to time, but she was primarily a songwriter. And I just wonder if the fact that there are just fewer great songwriters than there used to be is because fewer people actually try to be songwriters, as opposed to coming up with something that sounds good with three chords.

    Not that composing with a piano is a guarantee of anything. Randy Newman, who is now unaccountably in the rock and roll hall of fame while Denny and Thompson are not, has composed with and performed with a piano his entire career. I defy anyone to remember the words to pretty much any Randy Newman song (other than Short People and that Hat one and that one that Judy Collins does). Cole Porter had more great songs in one show (Anything Goes) than Newman has written his entire career.

    More later, undoubtedly.

  5. Great observation about the range of material, Wuf. No one besides John and Paul wrote as many different kinds of things (although the quality of Mick/Keith work was high for a good while, the variation was – well, small, to be generous – and if even a little of what Wyman says is true, there should be more than two names on many of those tunes). I would posit one other possibility, at least as far as variety from the CR era: Elton and Bernie covered a lot of ground stylistically. They deserve, I think, a mention for that. You know, given the possibilities of the Brill Building and the talent there (Sedaka, Carole King, Lieber-Stoller, et al) one wonders if that could have been as productive/prolific a group of exceptional tunesmiths as the TPA guys.

    You do carry that Akkerman torch, don’t you? I give him all due props for his work – but I still lean more to Beck as an instrumentalist/composer. As for Duane – and for that matter, Jimi (sacrilege!) – I wonder sometimes if their blues fixations mightn’t have held them back in ways that those former fellows aren’t detained. As do all Boomer musicians, I love me some blues – but as a form it has its real limitations. But, of course, we’ll never know if Jimi or Duane would have moved towards jazz, picked up some classical influences, what have you. Given their abilities as guitarists (I think of the wide range I’ve heard from, say, Leo Kottke, over the years as I write this and he’s purely an acoustic master) I think Allman and Hendrix might have surprised me.

    Okay, I’ll buy Costello – and Thompson is, I agree, first and foremost a superb songwriter – though the boy can flat play (would love to see him tour here with – well, Kottke, for example, with them playing some acoustic tunes, then Leo playing second guitar with Richard on some of his sung material – man, I should be a promoter). Dylan as a musician is – to put it gently, meh (God blessed him when he handed down the capo) – Costello is very, very much a better musician (saw him just a few years back with an orchestra and he’d scored parts!) Hope also, just to finish this thought, to see Nick Drake play with Thompson and Denny in R&R Heaven – maybe there Nick will look up occasionally….

    That SD and RT are not in the R&R HOF says everything about that bastard Jann Wenner that needs saying.

    I like Randy Newman – and I think you’re under rating him a bit. But I agree wholeheartedly that if he’s in Cleveland that Denny and Thompson should be there with bells on.

    As should Nick Drake – but given that the above mentioned asshole pubber of Rolling Stone only let Donovan and Laura Nyro in a year or two ago, RT like SD, ND, and LN have to be dead before he’ll get his due…I guess Jann thought DL was already dead….

    More on Gershwin, et al, as we move forward…couple of points to be made re: Tin Pan Alley guys and John/Paul/Elton/Bernie….

  6. .Agreed on a lot of this–both Jagger/Richard and Elton turned out very good songs for a while, at least until the drugs took over. JR, as you say, had a relatively limited range, although I do put on Satanic Majesties from time to time and wonder where did they get all that? They id steal like crazy, though—the Ry Cooder fiasco on Let it Bleed is legendary.
    Elton is clearly a piano guy, like Billy Joel, another good one for a while–but Joel was always a good Long Island kid. And I may be under-rating Newman. But whatever he does, it’s not rock and roll, which is something you can’t say about Elton (or Joel, for that matter.) Elton, OTOH, did some amazing stuff there for a while, at least before he started hanging out with some odd people.
    Akkerman–listen to the 2007 live CD. I rest my case. But no argument about Beck either.
    Yeah, Nick Drake. Have you read Joe Boyd’s book about producing all these people? White Bicycles—Making Music in the 1960s. Worth a look.
    Costello—check out All This Useless Beauty, which he actually wrote for June Tabor. That’s how you know he’s a songwriter at heart—he writes songs for other people.
    Duane listened to Coltrane a lot.
    I feel a post or two coming on.

  7. Hmm. Hadn’t considered Billy Joel – and he did some nice things for a while there.

    Am familiar with “All This Useless Beauty” – EC is quite the composer, indeed.

    Did not know that Coltrane connection with Duane. But makes one wonder what possibilities there could have emerged…

    Have White Bicycles on my radar, actually. Looking forward to it. Read an excerpt – somewhere – RS, perhaps. No, Bob Lefsetz talked about it. I’ll try to find that link he offered.

    Yes, perhaps a Scrogues converse might emerge…. 🙂