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The Political Stain

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The Political Stain

Music and politics is a perennial topic here even though I try to avoid the grosser manifestations of politics. An article in The New York Times expresses the complexity of the issue: When Classical Music Was an Alibi.

Performing classical music, or listening to it, has never been an apolitical act. But the idea that it might be flourished in the wake of World War II, thanks in part to the process of denazification, the Allied initiative to purge German-speaking Europe of Nazi political, social and cultural influence. 

Musicians slipped through the denazification process with relative ease. Many rank-and-file artists had been required to join Nazi organizations in order to remained employed, and the correlation of such membership to ideological commitment was often ambiguous. Individuals tended to lie on their forms to obtain a more advantageous status. And artists such as the eminent conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler referred to music’s apolitical status as a kind of alibi, even when they had performed on occasions, and as part of institutions, with deep ties to the regime. 

The more uncomfortable truth may be that the ambiguity of classical musicians’ status under Nazism makes them prime examples of “implicated subjects,” to use the theorist Michael Rothberg’s phrase. Rothberg writes that “implicated subjects occupy positions aligned with power and privilege without being themselves direct agents of harm; they contribute to, inhabit, inherit or benefit from regimes of domination, but do not originate or control such regimes.”

Many German and Austrian musicians occupied this liminal place, neither victim nor perpetrator but a participant in the history that produced both those positions. The well-meaning but blunt categories of denazification after 1945 actually blurred our understanding of the complex systems that led to war and genocide and how musicians operated within them.

I don't want to quote any more excerpts because you should read the whole thing. But I do want to make a few comments: yes, most classical musicians did have an ambiguous status under Nazism. Some were supporters of the regime, like Furtwängler, others were opposed (and Jewish) like Schoenberg and had to leave Germany, but most simply went along in order to continue their careers. The idea of "implicated subjects" is a misty one if you start to look at musicians in less extreme contexts. All musicians, after all, seek work in a social context, indeed, like all artists the product of their work is always social. Does music have political aspects? Some music very much so, but other music, much less so. The authors of the article acknowledge this to their credit.

I think it is also the case that music can communicate, support or even oppose political elements in a crude or subtle way. The truth is that there is always a complex interchange between ordinary political events and the world of music, but the complexity is revealed in how music might respond or interact. Some music is deeply patriotic, which might be seen as crudely political depending on your views on patriotism. Other music satirizes patriotism. Still other music ignores it entirely. Often art is more about art than anything else, extending and developing artistic traditions for new ages. At the same time it might be exemplifying deeper cultural elements. You can see Bach's music, like the Art of Fugue, as being an expression of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but then you can listen to a cantata or a passion and feel the emotionalism of the music and text.

In our current time's focus on politics we tend to ignore that most music in the Western world over the last millennium was more about religion than about politics (ignoring, if we can, the political aspects of religion).

One interesting figure mentioned in the article is Winfried Zillig who was both a modernist, 12-tone composer and who managed to pursue a successful career in Germany both during and after the Nazi years. Let's listen to some of his music. This is his "Prager Barock" Suite in Old Style composed at the height of Nazism in 1943:

That sounds like fairly bad neo-classicism to my ear. His Violin Concerto of 1949 sounds more modern:

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