Post-Truth Media – Post-Truth Music
Historically, there are cultural precedents that are worth considering. Nobody disputes this and though it’s perhaps too easy to carry on raising the spectre of Hitler, what I find interesting at this Trump/Brexit junction is the relationship of media and music in the nationalist movements that now rock the formerly enlightened West.
Nationalism destroyed the last “golden age” of Liberalism in the 19th century. Why? As countries opened trade and struck various supra-national contracts that guaranteed mutual security, (mostly led by Bismarck, then neglected by von Bülow) countries grew wealthier. Like today, the wealth was not evenly divided yet allowed the wealthy to claim that it was in any case “fairly” distributed. They had “earned” it. It also allowed national governments to invest in the projects that projected pride and self-importance, bolstering the newly empowered middle classes. Perhaps a youthful United States grew wealthiest of all, but with the isolation of an ocean, and only Native Americans and Mexicans to contend with, there was little threat to local dominance. America remained both liberal and anti-clerical, and post-Civil War, there was no choice but to heal wounds and mend fences. Religion was free to follow or not and all faiths were welcomed, though WASPS hated Catholics and Jews and excluded them wherever possible. America was still an Anglo-centric country while accepting thousands and thousands of poor Irish, Italians and Jews from Central Europe. German and Scandinavian immigration was viewed as less threatening, as long as it settled far from the Eastern enclaves of former British colonies. Freed from tyranny, or the confines of class and privilege, immigrants were left to their own devices to sink or swim. It was still preferable to where they had come from, where the only option was to sink. Revolution was too brutal for such immigrants, and escape to the great unknown beyond Ellis Island was the least bad-option. The freedom from regulation allowed the most ruthless and most industrious to become successful and build bigger mansions than the Anglophile WASPS who still excluded them from the best universities and clubs. But then, who cared? Money was what mattered, and as Downton Abbey subtly demonstrated, English land-owners married half-Jewish Americans if it meant saving the estate.
National self-image relied on national pride and national pride relied on army and empire. Germany armed itself, as did all other European powers, though perhaps less frenetically than “Kaiser Bill”. When the wealth of nations leads to armies and empires, it inevitably makes neighbouring nations nervous. Consolidation is required, and nothing is more fitting for nailing national pride than music. Long dead composers were co-opted while new voices were added. Who was greater than Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner? Even the composer from Hungary’s German speaking province, Franz Liszt, provided German swagger with its most stirring soundtrack.
(Historic recording from Berlin Philharmonic of theme from Liszt’s “Les Preludes”)
These composers formed the propaganda front-line for an emboldened Germany, united and proclaimed “Empire” only 43 years before the outbreak of World War I. If the Hungarian Liszt provided the tunes, the Englishman Houston Stewart Chamberlin provided the rationalisation. He was essentially a nobody until Kaiser Wilhelm II swallowed his racist nonsense, proclaiming Teutonic superiority biologically pre-ordained.
(Schönberg’s “Vorgefühl” or “Premonition” from 1909, Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra)
At the same time, Nationalist composers in other regions were churning out music that made hearts beat faster, while raising the blood-pressure of neighbours. Some composers, writers, and painters sensed where this would lead and foresaw an impending apocalypse. Art and music deliberately disfigured itself, became harmonically and visually schizophrenic and to the clear-sighted, provided images of horrors to come. Yet I don’t think they were ever meant to be warnings – I’ve changed my view since writing Forbidden Music. Visionary composers and painters offered prophesies, not warnings. Few were as chauvinistically German as Schönberg, and with the outbreak of war in 1914, his artistic Doppelgänger, Vassily Kandinsky dumped his German girlfriend (Gabriele Müntner) and returned to enemy Russia.
(Hanns Eisler op. 10 for men’s chorus “Tendenz”)
It should therefore come as no surprise that by 1918, a younger generation of composers would share a sense of guilt in participating in an art form that was so fundamentally responsible for driving entire nations over the edge. “New Objectivity”, a movement pronounced in 1924 in Mannheim, was meant to take people away from the artistic deceits of greatness. It was meant to educate the deluded and the excluded, extending its leftward reach into political agitprop, while offering ascetic sobriety to bourgeois concert goers. It focused listeners on what was “true”, not “fantasy”. Above all, it was music composed in the shadow of defeat and the Russian Revolution. Injustice and its threat to social cohesion, was there for everyone to see. Germany and Austria, even under their emperors could never match the utter despotism of Romanov Russia. As Thomas Mann pointed out, the middle class was the buffer against revolt from the left. The Austro-German bourgeoisie may have been financially damaged, but it was still educated. The middle class was a construct of the Enlightenment. It was fundamentally Western European in provenance, with Voltaire, Kant, Locke and even Austria’s Emperor Joseph II. Yet it was precisely the middle classes who in the run-up to war, had succumbed most to the nationalist drumbeat of German music.
(Finale to “Land of Hope and Glory” Last Night of the Proms)
I raise this point as in the landscape of today, it is the media now providing the delusional promises that music offered pre-1914. “Fake News” has done us a tremendous service by demonstrating how fragile even “real” news is. Every car-crash can be seen from the perspective of either driver and thus “real” becomes even more amorphous than fantasy. “Real news” led a coalition of the hoodwinked into Iraq; it justified the nefarious means by which the West removed a democratically elected president from the Ukraine, thus stiffening Russian resolve to ever more audacious adventures. It overplayed the threat of Islamic terrorism, while underplaying the threat of immigration by the ultra-orthodox. Too often, the media offers the world as we want it to be rather than as it is: races living together in harmony; gays and the trans-gendered accepted and valued; clergy “celebrating” religious differences; women providing a dynamic element in the workforce and so on. “Real news” is becoming as questionable as the false perception of Teutonic superiority in a Bruckner Symphony and thus it comes as no surprise that people turn to whichever outlets support their gut feelings. Like music pre-1914, there’s media that proclaims “we’re simply the best and beggar the rest” and there’s media that foresees big trouble ahead. Both media and music share the “mood-altering” elements that galvanise the masses.
Taking this metaphor a step further, and pre-supposing a Trump/Brexit combination brings on a major cataclysm, will media attempt a similar “sobering up” process as music? Will intellectuals and artists admit that the manipulative powers of media pitched the world into a cataclysm and attempt to find an antidote? Composing music that had something to say, while avoiding all emotion, proved to be an impossible circle to square. As Ernst Toch, one of the chief proponents of “New Objectivity” wrote in his Composer’s Credo in 1945: “Today there is a tendency to believe that science, in the fullness of time, will be able to explain everything. In the future, there will be no more mysteries – neither in nature nor within our inner lives. [….] But at the same time, we lost something. Perhaps it will be a while before we even notice that it’s missing, but in due course it will become obvious. And this ‘something’ is simply too important to do without. As fed up with Romanticism as we eventually became, one should not forget the basic fact that music, in its innermost makeup, is de facto romantic.”
Offering post-cataclysm media that is “Objective” will be equally difficult. To paraphrase Toch: “As fed up with manipulation as we eventually became, one should not forget the basic fact that news, in its innermost makeup, is de facto manipulative.”
As we now know, the conditions that punished Germany and Austria post 1918 resulted in two factions: one that imposed a sobering view of the world as it ought to be, and the other, more fanatically nationalistic than before. Hindemith, Toch, Eisler, Krenek and countless other provided the anti-Romantic medicine a defeated and deluded Germany desperately needed. Others counter-attacked with their “Make Germany Great Again” agenda: Hans Pfitzner, Franz Schmidt, the Swede Kurt Atterberg and a number of composers so compromised post-1945, we still don’t know what they sound like. Even Richard Strauss saw Adolf Hitler as the unpleasant price to pay in order to restore German greatness, and presumably his bank balance.
Following an even greater defeat in 1945, musicians took the visibly failed ideas of the New Objectivists a stage further and made music an atomic weapon against emotional manipulation. It was to become the corner stone of Adorno’s belief that building a “new culture” was paramount, so that a “new society” might ensue. Obsessive experimentation never actually led to a new musical culture, only to more experimentation. This in itself was no bad thing, only the “new society” that was meant to follow, remained stubbornly unchanged, while becoming more alienated from new music than ever before. Popular music quickly filled the vacuum and today, it’s popular music from the 60s and 70s that “Google” now offers up as “classic”.
(Silvestrov’s Symphony no. 5, First mov. Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, David Robertson)
Yet serious music has changed over the past 3 decades as well. It’s become more humble, less complex and more “minimal” in its construction, while restoring long lost emotional expression. The trajectory has been interesting to watch. In the 1990s and early 2000s, popular music genuinely took a turn towards the obscure and elite, while “Classical”, or “serious” music took a turn for the clean and straightforward. In the intervening decade, pop has gone back to being tutti-frutti-bubble-gum, while serious music has started to address emotional emptiness through simplicity and directness.
(Gorecki: Second mov. symphony no. 3; Dawn Upshaw, David Zinman, London Sinfonietta)
These are recent developments and it’s impossible to see if they can take hold. I suspect they will, even if composers such as Glass and Adams prove merely to be the Cimarosa and Gluck to a yet to register Mozart. Will it be, however, a model for media to follow? The need to address the desire for a world view as we would like it to be, while remaining simple enough to allow for alternatives – a humble, less complex and less authoritative media that allows doubt rather than feeding it. Who knows? Let’s hope the answer can be found without the upheavals of the 20th century.