Wednesday, December 26, 2007

That Interruption, World War II

CONTINUING A LOOK at Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise:

Part Two: 1933-1945

Ross centers his survey of the music of the 20th century on three chapters taking up the music of the Soviet Union, the United States, and the Third Reich. “The Art of Fear: Music in Stalin’s Russia” opens with the celebrated denunciation of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the opera attended by Josef Stalin at the beginning of 1936. The affair stands for a general, and unprecedented, incursion of government into aesthetic concerns, and Ross introduces the subject eloquently:
The period from the mid-thirties onward marked the onset of the most warped and tragic phase in twentieth-century music: the total politicizing of the art by totalitarian means. On the eve of the Second World War, dictators had manipulated popular resentment and media spectacle to take control of half of Europe.
Ross cites Hitler, Mussolini, Miklós Horthy in Hungary, Franco, and Stalin; but notes also that
In America, Franklin D. Roosevelt was granted extraordinary executive powers to counter the ravages of the Depression, leading conservatives to fear an erosion of constitutional process, particularly when federal arts programs were harnessed to political purposes.
Ross reminds us that Stalin and Hitler
…aped the art-loving monarchs of yore, pledging the patronage of the centralized state. But these men were a different species. Coming from the social margins, they believed themselves to be perfect embodiments of popular will and popular taste. At the same time, they saw themselves as artist-intellectuals, members of history’s vanguard.
Ross’s writing on the political and social history of this period is continuously interesting and fully informed. His reading has run from academic political history to primary sources among revolutionaries, writers, and composers; his authority here is very persuasive.

And he allows some of his argument to emerge from between his lines. For example: A central theme of early twentieth-century art was irony, the concealment of intended meaning or effect behind an apparently dissociation of apparently more innocent surface expression. Irony cannot appeal to authoritarians or the the masses: each for different reasons wants expression in black and white, resists nuance as effete and intellectual.

Irony is of course central to Shostakovich’s music of the Stalinist period: or at least that is the only way that music can be understood by today’s audiences. Ross cautions
To talk about musical irony, we first have to agree on what the music appears to be saying, and then we have to agree on what the music is really saying. This is invariably difficult to do. We can, however, learn to be wary of any interpretation that displays too much certitude about what the music is “really saying,” and stay alert to multiple levels of meaning.
but goes on to encourage our hearing Shostakovich’s Fifth and Seventh symphonies “in this way” — while insisting on the composer’s very real everyday heroism during the German assault on Leningrad — a heroism forced on virtually every inhabitant of that city.

The next chapter, “Music for All: Music in FDR’s America” is necessarily less coherent: even under Roosevelt’s “extraordinary executive powers,” the United States was hardly a monolithic organization. For one thing, waves of refugee artists and intellectuals, displaced by the Third Reich, brought all flavors of European Modernism to a country whose mood had swung, through the effects of the Great Depression, toward a simpler, more populist expression:

That such disparate personalities as the White Russian Stravinsky and the hard-core Communist [Hanns]Eisler could feel temporarily at home in America was a tribute to the inclusive sprit of Franklin Delano Roosevelt… [who] embodied what came to be known as the “middlebrow” vision of American culture — the idea that democratic capitalism operating at full tilt could still accommodate high culture of the European variety.

Some of the tendency toward a populist esthetic was the result of populist technology: the phonograph and radio did much to tilt a national musical taste — not monolithic, bien entendu — toward the approachable and the assimilable. Even the many attempts by well-meaning middlebrow critics and conductors to improve the public taste
failed to stimulate the radio executives and the corporate heads who bought advertising. Stokowski’s advocacy of new music reportedly alarmed the higher-ups at General Motors… A few months after the premiere of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, it was announced that Stokowski’s contract would not be renewed…
(Schoenberg’s own draft notes toward a possible program underlying that Concerto are keenly apropos:
Life was so easy
suddenly hatred broke out
a grave situation was created
But life goes on

cited in H.H. Stuckenschmidt: Arnold Schoenberg: his life, world, and work (New York: Schirmer Books, 1977)
If dictatorial tyranny was missing from the American scene in the 1930s, other forces prevailed against Modernist experimentalism. Ross discusses the political innuendo-campaigns against any possible Communist connection as it affected Aaron Copland and Marc Blitzstein, but he doesn’t give equal consideration to the concurrent social pressure on them for their homosexuality.

Ross investigates figures who while they may be less familiar to today’s readers and listeners are nevertheless significant both for their own merits as composers and for their representative quandaries in this difficult period: Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger are given particularly sympathetic treatment. He touches on Broadway and Hollywood. He gives a fair amount of attention to Virgil Thomson’s division of American musical audiences into three types:
1) the Luxury-trade, capitalist Toscanini public riding with sedate satisfaction in streamlined trains from Beethoven to Sibelius and back. 2) The professor-and-critic conspiraccy for internationalist or “contemporary”” music which prizes hermetism and obscurantism… 3)The theatre-public of the leftist-front, a pubic of educated, urban working people who want eucated, urban spokesmen for their ideals.
(Thomson wrote that paragraph in 1938, when it was published in Modern Music — a magazine whose very existence reveals the complexity and, to a great extent, the wonderful sophistication prevailing at that time in American culture.)

And Ross is quick to offer examples of each category: Samuel Barber; Roger Sessions; Kurt Weill and George Gershwin.

Copland, however, gets most of Ross’s attention in this chapter, and why not? Like Shostakovich, he was caught between his Modernist and internationalist instincts and the populist requirements of the society in which he composed. Both, for very different reasons, end as tragic figures, ultimately unable, for reasons beyond their control, to pursue those instincts to fully satisfying career conclusions. Curiously, Copland’s best music seems to me to be that which makes the least compromise while addressing each of the conflicting pressures on his own personal composing style: the Modernist Piano Variations and the populist El Salon México.

FINALLY, THE THIRD CHAPTER in this central “book” of Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise, “Death Fugue: Music in Hitler’s Germany,” investigates the equally tragic conclusion of the long career of Richard Strauss.

First Ross sets out the close connection between Hitler and the Wagner family (the composer of Das Ring der Nibelungen had left a son, Siegfried, whose closet homosexuality was masked by his marriage, at 45, to the 17-year-old English girl Winifred Williams; they ran the family business at Bayreuth, and Siegfried was an active supporter of Hitler.)

Anti-Semitism has been a continuing minor theme of Ross’s study, beginning with the opening of The Rest is Noise with a disquisition on Strauss’s Salome; in this chapter the theme is no longer minor. But the problem of musical politics in the Third Reich is not that simple:
Was there such a thing as a “Nazi sound”? Did a conservative style steeped in Wagner, Bruckner, and/or Strauss guarantee success in Hitler’s World? Did more adventurous styles [which] had prospered in the free atmosphere of the Weimar Republic guarantee failure? The answers…are not as clear as is often assumed. The automatic equation of radical style with liberal politics and of conservative style with reactionary politics is a historical myth that does little justice to an agonizingly ambiguous historical reality.
Ross takes up the cases of Hans Pfitzner, Paul Hindemith, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, and Carl Orff (and, in an intriguing aside, that of the great Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola); and he sets them forth with admirable clarity and sympathy.

But nothing is simple, and one of the most significant paragraphs here investigates the authoritarian and elitist positions held even on the aesthetic left, inspired though they may have been by the authoritarian suppression of the political right:
In 1931, as Germany was swinging politically rightward, Schoenberg described his music as “a living example of an art able most effectively to oppose Latin and Slav hopes of hegemony [,] and derived through and through from the traditions of German music.” …and in his 1938 essay “Four-Point Program for Jewry” he declared that democracy would be unsuitable for a mass Jewish movement.
Ross further quotes Schoenberg’s description of his methods in running his Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna, noting that they are “precisely how Hitler took power in 1933.”

Alex Ross’s “Death Fugue” ends, sadly, in April 1945, with Richard Strauss completing his late masterpiece Metamorphosen on the very day Roosevelt dies; with Brucker’s Romantic Symphony playing from the loudspeakers in the ruins of Berlin, and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings on the radios of the United States.

WORLD WAR II was the great interruption in the course of the Twentieth Century, derailing Modernism, confusing Democracy, cementing the rise of Industrialism and through that the institution of the global consumer economy. Schoenberg was right, though: a grave situation was created / But life goes on. Ross’s book concludes with what is perhaps its most troubled and necessarily unsatisfying sections, covering the rest of the century, fifty-five years. I’ll try to get to a consideration of it in a few days, partly inspired by its epigraph:
We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist upon a river of time, that we have come to delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies.
— John Cage, KPFA radio, 1992

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