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.
Claude Vivier: Lettura di Dante (1973/1974)
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.
A great, thought-provoking article. While reading it, I was reminded of this book, re-released last year. There are a few parallels … https://www.amazon.com/Surprised-Beauty-Listeners-Recovery-Modern/dp/1586179055/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1485110764&sr=1-1&keywords=surprised+by+beauty
Thank you Phillip – though I would not like people to think I’m taking sides with conservatives against the new-music bandits who sprang forth from Darmstadt and Donaueschingen, not to mention much of America’s academia. There were valid reasons for this music coming into being – reasons I would have supported had I been born only ten years earlier. If you can find it, watch “Heimat 2” which deals with the development of a young German composer born during the war years and confronted with a Nazi legacy he never asked for and could only reject by embracing an aesthetic that was everything anathema to the sentimental German nationalism that burned at the heart of Nazi thought. And much of the music that came out of this experimentation is more than valid: Zimmermann’s “Soldaten” is as powerful an opera as any written in the 20th century. It would be better known if it weren’t so complicated to perform. Yet experimentation became an end in itself, and like any dogma self-annihilated.
It is not difficult to find out what composers like Hans Pfitzner, Franz Schmidt and Kurt Atterberg sound like; their works have been recorded (and uploaded, in many cases, to YouTube) and scores are available (including ones that can be freely downloaded from IMSLP).
Pfitzner and Atterberg to one side, you once again repeat your calumny against Franz Schmidt, who – according to his Jewish friend and biographer, Oskar Adler – was “never a Nazi” and in any case was dead by early 1939.
Again, I’m grateful for your avid defence of Franz Schmidt. You may be interested to know that we at the exil.arte Centre in Vienna are hoping to acquire the musical estate of one of his most talented pupils, Walter Bricht, who was thrown out of Austria after he refused to become an “honorary Aryan”. At no point have I made the suggestion that Schmidt was an anti-Semite. He had many Jewish pupils, friends and colleagues. Probably if one sifted through his correspondence at Austria’s National Library, one could find letters that may have suggested the anti-Semitism of the age; whereas I’m willing to bet there will be, as with Joseph Marx, far more that underline his belief that a musician is judged by their merits, talents and values rather than their “race” (as the thinking of the time would have put it). It’s difficult to crawl back into the time-loop with the shadow of the Holocaust blotting out every nuance that informed any decision made by individuals at a very difficult time. Obviously the composers I named can now be accessed on Youtube and thanks to CPO and other labels, even heard. I believe my point was that there are many composers who have been pushed to one side because of decisions they made in good faith, and whom we still don’t know. As Berthold Goldschmidt said to me years ago, we have no right to judge as we didn’t live through those times. (And writing that Schmidt was compromised is not judging, it’s simply stating a fact. The Nazis liked him, he was dead already before the beginning of the “Final Solution” and post-war it cost him a good deal of sympathy) A composer who taught at a public conservatory who was not a Jew, or politically compromised; had no funds in foreign bank accounts, no connections abroad and no immediate need to leave the country, which meant paying the Reichsfluchtsteuer so that arrival abroad was guaranteed penury, resulted in many talented musicians and composers keeping their heads down. A fair number, such as Max Butting, Eduard Erdmann or Felix Petyrek joined the NSDAP – as composers, their works were condemned as “Cultural Bolshevism”, meaning the only way of earning a living was performing or teaching. They could only perform or teach if they joined the party. The number of composers and musicians who in no way supported Hitler but did what they had to in order to scrape by, has left us with another pile-up on the Highway of 20th century culture – only this one is far more complex to disentangle than the more straightforward restitution of works by Jewish or politically compromised composers.
Yes, Schmidt was – posthumously – very much a victim of circumstances which, even if he could have, he clearly did not foresee. In using this formulation (“victim”), I certainly don’t wish to trivialise the far more tragic victimhood of those multitudes whose lives, not (unlike Schmidt’s) yet over, were to be blighted or destroyed by the political forces that Schmidt – one man among millions, at least as a private individual – had failed to understand (and therefore take a sufficient interest in). My real concern is that there are also legions of music-lovers, past and present, who could have appreciated and learnt from his music but, because of cultural politics (as well as the regular variety) never did, never will or will only experience it through an aesthetico-historico-cultural lens which will distort their perceptions and judgements.
Schmidt’s uneasy relationship with (and grudging admiration for) Mahler is now reasonably well known; less well known is his immense admiration for the music of Mendelssohn, music whose beauties and technical accomplishment he regularly praised to his students and colleagues.
Interesting article, and indeed linking pre-1914 Europe with today – frightening thought. But musically, the two eras could not be farther apart.
The equation of classical, concert music with emotional manipulation is, I think, very very questionable. Music is non-conceptual, and can be related to very different concrete things. As far as music is emotionally expressive – a better term than manipulative – it filters the essence of experience out of concrete experience. Beethoven was certainly inspired by the French revolution when he wrote his Eroica, but he filtered the ‘heroism’ out of that experience and gave it its universal character. To suggest that music around 1900 fuelled aggressive nationalism goes much too far.
“…….. participating in an art form that was so fundamentally responsible for driving entire nations over the edge.” No music was ever responsible for political catastrophe. It is like fanatics misusing religion as a justification for crimes: it is not the religion that is responsible but the people annexxing it. For the politicians and the masses at the time, concert music was irrelevant, it was merely something for a restricted elite and by far not as widely accessible and distributed as music is today. It could not possibly have the influence as is suggested in this article, even if we know that artists themselves and intellectuals – both minorities with hardly any influence at all – used symbolism of the arts when they supported the war. For instance, Debussy was very chauvinistic about the french musical heritage, and the war of 1914 only strenthened this, but I’m sure his stance did not stimulate or influence the efforts at the front. He reacted to what happened, not participating in it.
“…… it is the media now providing the delusional promises that music offered pre-1914.” I cannot think of ANY piece of concert music which promised delusional things before 1914, implying: stimulated people to wage war. Strauss’ ‘Ein Heldenleben’? Sounds like self-refuting irony, a joke. Mahler’s symphonies? Deal with existential subjects and the later, the more pessimistic, totally unsuited for nationalistic aggression. Schreker? Too beautiful. Debussy? Entirely otherworldly. Ravel? Too sophisticated. Schoenberg? Too pessimistic. Etc. etc… we have to go to earlier music: Wagner? Even with his intentions, the listener is invited to enter entirely imaginary symbolic worlds, and even in Meistersinger there is no sable rattling. The Ring, supposed to be Germany’s mythical archetype, ends in Untergang – so, also entirely unsuited for nationalist war mongering.
“‘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.” Bruckner? The length and bulk of his symphonies deal with religious experience not with ‘national greatness’. All this interpretation of musical greatness as national greatness is due to misunderstanding people annexing the music, and NOT to the music itself. The craziness of modernist ideology after WW II is that it thought music to have been compromised by war catastrophe, thereby projecting guilt where it never was.
The problem with this comparison of musical greatness with nationalistic greatness and chauvinism, is that the notion of greatness is thought of being compromised which is nonsensical. Great works of art are great because of themselves and have no responsibility for prostitution by nitwits and cranks.
These are interesting thoughts, though I can’t say that I agree with everything. For one thing, I take on board, and agree with your view that music is emotionally expressive and “filters the essence of experience” (very well put), but can’t agree that music can’t “manipulate” emotionally. Just listen to the Edinburgh Tattoo, or visit a performance of Russian dancers or listen to Irish pub singers. Regardless of musical merits, the primary purpose if to form (manipulate) bonds where otherwise there may be none. It would be oppressively literal to suggest that there were flag-waving composers writing flag-waving music around 1900 that drove Germany to war. More the case was the co-opting of long-dead composers into the nationalist cause – or excluding them (such as Mendelssohn). But if we’re looking at fin de siècle, we’re dealing with a period when access to music was highly restricted. There may have been dance music in the parks during the Spring and Summer, but otherwise, music was either heard in liturgical settings, domestic settings or concerts. Only a tiny elite had access to concert subscriptions, meaning most people either heard music in church, a ballad singer in the local square or were able to make a bit of music themselves. As a result, the idea of music became nationalistic. People could shout that there were no better composers than German composers never having heard a note of Bach, Beethoven or Brahms.
But nationalism pre-1914 was not just German nationalism, but nationalism throughout the constituent parts of various empires: Czech nationalism, Bulgarian nationalism, Polish nationalism – all of these countries were producing composers (some forgotten today, others well regarded) who wrote works that were meant to exalt some abstract national identity. The answer to Slavic nationalism was to pound chests and proclaim the transcendent greatness of Bach, Beethoven and whoever….
Yet one thing that we tend to overlook these days is the very nature of music provincialism. Local music has traditionally been as important as seasonable vegetables – often items that are impossible to export but mean a lot to a specific group of people from a very specific place with common experiences. At the exil.arte Centre in Vienna, we have taken on the musical estates of a Croatian composer and a Berlin composer. Neither receive more than a cursory mention in any lexicon, yet incredibly, every work they ever wrote was published by local publishers and was presumably bought and sold in a very local market. Probably, MOST music is local – only since mass media has the idea of conquering the world set in. It explains why Franz Schmidt’s opera Notra Dame rarely made it out of Austria, or why Max von Schillings operas never made it TO Austria – why the Catalans love Pedrill, the English love Quilter, the Dutch love Waagner, or the Americans love Copland. None of these composers were writing OVERTLY nationalistic music: they were writing music that was meant to make their fellow nationals “feel good” about who they were. Too much listening to “Fanfare for the Common Man” did not result in the election of Donald Trump, though I’m not sure that hearing “Land of Hope and Glory” one time too many at a Proms’ performance didn’t have at least a tiny role to play in the Brexit debacle. The interesting thing about “Socialist Realism” was that it too was music that was meant to make people feel good about who they were. In this respect, it was a trend repeated in many places whether it was Vaughan Williams or Bax in England or Aaron Copland, William Schumann, Roy Harris in America. These were all developments that attempted to link music with identity, and in this respect, it was “manipulative”.
Oh…. but I fully agree with pop, rock, heavy metal, folk music etc. being manipulative, but we are dealing here, I thought, with classical / art / concert music which has quite some distance to the ‘real world’. Already the fact that it is performed in halls which are sealed-off from the outside world, and sound proof, underlines this. Throwing together such different worlds like fin de siècle entertainment and concert music in one political context as in the article, makes a bit confusing reading…
Yes the nationalistic trends in 19C classical concert music is well-known, but seem to have been quite innocent, just exploring new material after Viennese classicism. The 18th century was, culturally speaking and politically, very cosmopolitan, governing elites intermarrying, artistic traditions freely travelling everywhere and being imitated and adapted. In 19C romanticism, national traditions offered colourful material as a change from classicist abstraction and universalism. It was only in Germany that the national element got politically-charged because of the frustrations of a splintered and backward area only bound together by culture and language – before 1871. Your comments about ‘local music’ are truly interesting, echos of times when music was important for a community in a place and in a time, beautiful function in a social context.
“These were all developments that attempted to link music with identity, and in this respect, it was ‘manipulative’.” I am a bit skeptical about calling music which wants to cultivate or stimulate identity, manipulative, since that suggests misusing / exploiting music’s power to stirr emotions. Where music has an emotional influence, it is mostly quite a mix of things, including influences that the composer never intended. And often music invites projection by the listener, since it is nonconceptual. All this is quite a grey area and not so straightforward, it seems to me, and stimulating identity – especially cultural identity – seems to me a good thing and does not necessarily mean invading Poland. Creating the experience of being part of a much greater whole than your own isolated individuality, is one of music’s positive influences; if misused for political ends, it is prostitution.
With all due respect, I would like to correct you a bit on the Dutch: if you mean that the Dutch love Wagenaar, Dutch composer from around 1900, that is alas not correct since that composer is hardly ever played and practically unknown in Holland. And when his music is played, it is never thought of as something national, in spite of nationalistic titles. Ironically, if you had written Wagner, then you would have hit on the music which is indeed immensily popular in Holland; put a Wagner opera on the program – either in the Amsterdam opera or in the Concertgebouw concertante – and it will be sold-out in just a few hours, and people will be hanging in the lamps. Dutch people like indulging in W’s emotional floods, and they are NOT experienced nationalistically because Germany had had quite a devastating effect on the country in the last war. Talking about musical manipulation: the Dutch are known for their emotionally-suppressed character and contempt for things emotionally expressive if it is not of a populist nature. But Wagner music offers a safe way of ventilating built-up passion, extasy, etc. etc., so listeners feel very happy being ‘manipulated’. What probably really happens, is emotional experience without the danger of being laughed at.
I do hope we can meet at some point as there is obviously much to talk about. Actually, my experience of the Dutch has been quite different. The audience of the Concertgebouw seem open to giving nearly anything a standing ovation. I scheduled some 40+ programmes for VARA and every one of them was received with a standing ovation – whether it was an opera by Wellesz or Schreker or Schulhoff. Also, I’m beginning to suspect, though I’m too ill-informed in the political history of the Netherlands to say with any certainty, that an entire generation of talent was wiped out in Holland during the Nazi years. I write about some of them in my article https://forbiddenmusic.org/2015/10/09/the-lost-legacy-of-the-netherlands/ and again here: https://forbiddenmusic.org/2013/12/15/wilhelm-rettich/ I accept that by the 1940s, Holland’s musical voice was still influenced heavily by either German or French composers, but when I worked my way through the Leo Smit compendium of 10 CDs, I became more and more convinced that the younger voices – meaning those YOUNGER than Leo Smit – had managed a distinct separation. I wouldn’t call it Dutch nationalism, but would suggest that I heard something that is not as derivative as other Dutch composers from previous generations. Smit wears his French friendly influences on his sleeve, but Belinfante and Kattenburg offered fresh hope. Even Wilhelm Rettich, who actually WAS German sounds less German in his violin and piano concertos. His Lieder on the Leo Smit Compendium are less convincing. That we don’t think of Holland as a producer of composers may be because the greatest hopes for the 20th century were murdered. It would seem that only Hungary and Czechoslovakia lost as many, while they had a stock of established Composer they could already call their own.