Reflections on Music and Politics at a Time of Transition

In the year 2018, as we reflect on 1918 and in Austria and the Czech Republic, on the year 1938, we encounter more and more references suggesting a repeat of Weimar Constitution Germany: a democracy shown to be fragile is threatened by the spectre of authoritarianism. A music blog that offers information on historic musical victims of politics has a responsibility, occasionally, to look at politics as well as music. When I’ve done so in the past, I’ve received a certain amount of flak. Nevertheless, the interaction is fascinating and in times like these, it’s worth evaluating our current landscape while projecting templates from the past onto a potential future. Music and politics have always been uncomfortable bedfellows. Politicians accredit musicians with far greater powers of influence than is actually the case, while musicians assume politicians occupy positions of absolute authority, able to change obvious injustice at the snap of a finger. Both are wrong. They glower at each other from across the floor and occasionally land on each other’s dance card. It’s a relationship that rarely lasts in the long term, while often resulting in explosive encounters in the short. Just think of the musicians who have saddled up with politicians they think represent their world views, and the politicians who have actively courted them. Then recall how it all went sour.

There is an intriguing symmetry between the new democracies that sprang up after the First World War and the old democracies that exist today. Both are vulnerable, though vulnerable in the way that infants and geriatrics are vulnerable. Their vulnerability demands security and the easiest source of security is authority. The Achilles heel of Weimar Germany was the notorious Article 48 of its Constitution allowing the president to call a state of emergency and rule by decree. Few casual admirers of Weimar Constitution Germany realise how often Article 48 was actually invoked. President Friedrich Ebert used the Article 63 times during the worst years of German hyper-inflation (1923/24) while Hindenburg, elected in 1925, invoked the article regularly, culminating in a record-breaking 60 times in 1932 alone. It was an article wedged into the Constitution by sceptics from the former Hohenzollern regime who simply felt that as attractive as parliamentary democracy may be, there needed to be a mechanism by which authority could be unilaterally imposed. It is what allowed Hitler to hold absolute power following the burning of the Reichstag. “State of Emergency” clauses exist in old, established democracies as well. The difference is they are seen as a utility during a genuine emergency and not as the panic button to be pushed during any domestic crisis, as was the case in the nascent democracy of Weimar Constitution Germany.

                        VE Day in London’s Guy’s Hospital

The long-established Congressional/Parliamentary democracies of the English speaking world have their own vulnerabilities. Having been on the victorious side of all of the conflicts arising from the 20th century, the United States and Great Britain have seen little need to modernize. The two party politics that result from first-past-the-post voting systems offer the sort of governments where “consensus” becomes synonymous with “betrayal”. Proportional voting systems used in more recent democracies allow every vote to count and result in multi-party coalitions as administrations try to edge forward with decisions that cause the least harm to the least number of citizens. Neither the UK nor the USA have long-standing traditions of social contracts, and neither see a thorough education as a right for all, rather than a privilege for the wealthy and talented. They allow swathes of voters to be poorly informed, or unable to question misinformation. Mercantile principles that permit money as sole determinant have resulted in media landing in the hands of those who can afford to buy. It must be obvious that the wealth that allows the purchase of vast quantities of media by non-stake holders cannot be in the interest of stake-holding citizens. Information, like electricity and water relies on conduits. The conduit for information is media. We rely on journalists to read and interpret documentation that normal citizens haven’t the time to access. It’s important for these intermediaries to dance to impartial tunes and not the tune of wealthy proprietors in need of “useful idiots”. If “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” (to quote Samuel Johnson), fear mongering is the first refuge of the despot. The two are merging in Trump’s United States and Brexit Britain thanks to media where due diligence is only required in solidifying the interests of paymasters. As victors of world- and Cold Wars, Britons and Americans are often sceptical of the dividends coming from multi-lateral consensus. They see only threats where shadows are inflated to menace by opportunists. The Achilles heel of established democracies is two party politics resulting in ideology over logic, and dogma over technocratic competence. It leads to the views that “Marxism/The Free Market would work wonders if only we could persuade everyone to embrace it fully”. It tolerates no nuance and sees “Freedom and Equality” as binary, self-cancelling objectives.  Should power through fluke, deviance or revolution be consolidated, wealth, privilege and access become limited to a self-proclaimed elite. Look at the Soviet Bloc pre-1989 and the disparities of wealth and opportunities that presently characterize the free-market democracies of the United States and Great Britain.

German colonial in Quindau China

The German historian, Heinrich August Winkler highlights another aspect of Germany in 1914 that may offer an interesting avenue of thought in evaluating events today. The Kaiser felt the German Empire was entitled to the same imperialist rights of colonialism as Britain and France. The relative recent emergence of Germany as a European power in 1871 led to aspirations he believed were due to the Hohenzollern status on the world stage. The problem, however, was imperial colonialism was already on the way of becoming obsolete. Kaiser Wilhelm was therefore chasing yesterday’s glory. Is it possible to find a correlation to power struggles today? Are the aspirations of nuclear arms not the aspirations of the 20th rather than the 21st century? In an age when warfare may be fought on hard-drives rather than bombs, are such issues even relevant? Winkler points out that neither Britain nor France were remotely aware of the emerging irrelevance of imperialism, which contributed to their efforts to contain Hohenzollern ambitions. In today’s world, what’s the point of owning an expensive explosive device if a teenage hacker can disable your network, or alternatively, set it off?

And now, we come to thoughts on music in such environments. The arts too, whether we like it or not, are a form of media. The information may be less “fact-based” than newspapers or newsfeeds, but the information they impart is just as crucial. It’s the information of self. Who and what we are is reflected by our consumption of the arts. It informs by dialectic rather than reportage. It is subject to the auto-didactic abilities of the individual. A novel, a film, a play communicates truths via the circumlocution of fiction. Music, without accompanying texts speaks to our deepest sense of self and who we are. With texts, it joins the world of direct communication. This is why misogynistic, homophobic and racist rap is censored, but not its notation. The words are harmful not its tones. Yet, it is the power of tones without words that authority fears the most. It is music’s power arising from wordless identity that is the most difficult to control.

Ludwig Meidner’s “Burning City” from 1913

The apocalyptic images evoked by Austro-German Expressionists pre-World-War-One were subdued into utilitarian Objectivity after finding themselves on the losing side. Sobriety was needed to replace the delusional claptrap of Wagner, Beethoven and all the other dead composers considered fundamental to German identity. After losing the Second World War and confrontation with the deep criminality of their elected leaders, music became even more abstract and detached, as if acoustically separating itself from its murderous provenance. Yet, these were not just developments from the Austro-German traditions, but part of the wider picture that, similar to today, found itself in the chaos of modernity. If the 19th Century had represented continuity, the 20th represented disruption, and such disruption demanded its own voice. Music speaks to us on a level that is not always intellectual, but responsive to a sense of self. It’s why Marxists societies promoted Socialist Realism and in the United States, this trend was reflected at the same time by Americana. What is Fanfare for the Common Man, Appalachian Spring, or the works of Roy Harris, Howard Hanson or William Schuman if not equal appeals to Americans to feel good about who they were. By the same token, Austro-German music post-1945 inevitably carried the “feel bad for who we are” message in the hope that such horrors should never happen again. By synthesizing identity with sound, music communicates by dialectic, hence its power.

Where music and politics stand today in relation to one another, is something only future historians can evaluate. From a contemporary objective, technology has made music disposable. Actually, it was always disposable until we could capture and disseminate it via broadcast and recording. With streaming and downloads, we reach for convenience and instant gratification, happily wiping the last recording of Verdi’s Requiem off the hard-drive for something newer. Serious music gains platforms through new media, but little access to consolidated publics. It’s like taking a stew where water is added in order to feed more mouths. Eventually, it becomes so thin it loses all nutritional benefits. The countless composers on YouTube mean their sheer numbers keep any of them from being properly heard. Music like information is now unfiltered and rushes over us in a never-ending tide of confusion. Is it any wonder that so much American Minimalism is dominated by incessant, rhythmically charged repetition? Is it adding to the confusion or clarifying and commentating? Who knows? An instrumentalist recently commented to me on Facebook that they hoped a certain composer would write for them, since it would establish them on a certain “cool” spectrum. Is being seen as “cool” now more important than having something individual to impart? Will nobody bother to listen if you’re not perceived as “cool”? Is this the crisis of identity and the arts today? No doubt it was ever thus, though a fair number of artists make a remarkable career out of being studiously un-cool, appealing to young and old fogies alike. It doesn’t matter; to be heard and taken seriously in the rising tidal swamp requires a shtick.

The artists from the beginning of the 20th century had a premonition that the stolid continuity of the 19th century would come crashing and result in chaos. They didn’t know how they knew, but they felt it in their marrow of their creative bones. Today, we have a similar sense of foreboding arising from a bewildering flow of information mixed with deliberate misinformation. It seems to portend a more confusing rather than better future. It’s left us in a world of Orwellian contradictions. Social media that was intended to allow equal discourse for everyone assumed all discourse would be fair, thus becoming the “useful idiot” of powers against any discourse. Conservatives are no longer interested in conserving, they demand reaction. Progressives are no longer interested in progress; they merely wish to find an equitable accommodation with the present. The consolidation of information- and artistic conduits with wealth has led to distrust and confusion. Everywhere lurks the spectre of Article 48.