From The Times Literary Supplement
April 30, 2008
Classical music's twentieth-century tragedy
How music and politics combined to devastating effect in Germany and the USSR
Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise tells the story of what happened to Western classical music in the twentieth century. We all know that the invention of recorded sound around 1900 made possible an extraordinary dissemination of the riches of the classical repertoire – largely composed for the rich and powerful – to the mass of ordinary people. On the gramophone, the radio, television and, subliminally and hence more powerfully, through the movies, the classical sound in all its variants (even the supposedly rebarbative confections of the Second Viennese School) has insinuated itself into the culture at large. Never before have so many people listened to, or liked, so-called classical music. Yet this extraordinary triumph has culminated in a malaise, a feeling, widespread in the musical profession and elsewhere, that classical music is in crisis and that things have never been so bad. Classical music feels abandoned, left behind as history has moved on, sulking in its tent as the real cultural action happens somewhere else.
Ross’s book – which, in a two-pronged attack, puts the history back into music and music back into history – offers many answers to this paradox. In a book packed full of well-chosen and depicted vignettes and anecdotes, two stand out.
In 1904, Richard Strauss, the “anarch of art” as one American critic described him, visited the United States. He was received at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt. He was invited onto the floor of the Senate. How comforting this is for us besieged elitists, who grasp at such contemporary straws as the opera-loving Gordon Brown succeeding the Fender Stratocaster-wielding Blair. Once upon a time, serious music was given its due. Music does of course still have a political platform, a bully pulpit even; but it is pop musicians now who are wooed by political leaders, and classical musicians, with a very few exceptions (Daniel Barenboim springs to mind), who inhabit the margins. Whether political leverage, or cultural influence, were really good for classical music – tempting as it is to want to see the best of art appreciated and deferred to – is another question.
Thirty-eight years after Strauss’s American apotheosis (and some years after his shameful but complex accommodation with the Nazi regime in Germany, masterfully unpicked by Ross), in the midst of the Great Patriotic War, the score of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the “Leningrad”, was flown into that besieged city by Soviet military aircraft. Musicians were recalled from more straightforwardly martial duties on the front line to perform it. German commanders planning to disrupt the performance found themselves pre-empted by “Operation Squall”, a Soviet diversionary manoeuvre. The symphony was relayed over loudspeakers into no man’s land. As Ross puts it, “never in history had a musical composition entered the thick of battle in quite this way: the symphony became a tactical strike against German morale”.
If we were to ask why, at the opening of the twentieth century, and through the horrors of its first five decades, classical music retained such importance, the answer would have to be: Germany. Classical music, music which was more than entertainment, music which demanded reverent attention, and which even made metaphysical claims, was written into the very DNA of German culture. The German question, the political and diplomatic issue of how the German nation fitted into the world, dominated international affairs in the century between the 1848 revolutions and the Second World War. This was reflected in the philosophical and cultural preoccupations of the European elites, rooted as they were in German philosophical conceits and German political anxieties. Hegelianism, Marxism, nationalism, Wagnerism – love them or hate them, they all came from Germany and they framed the terms of debate in philosophy, political theory and music. If Schopenhauer put music at the centre of his philosophy as the most important art, one which uniquely traced the movements of the noumenal will, Wagner responded with music that fascinated and horrified artists in all disciplines. When it came to the great contest of the 1914–18 war, German propagandists like Thomas Mann characterized it as a conflict between the Kultur of Germans and the Zivilisation of their French-led opponents; between, in musical terms, the deep, metaphysical character of the German tradition, and the superficial joie de vivre of the French.
The price paid for classical music’s proximity to power was heavy, and the central chapters of Ross’s book lay bare the moral somersaults composers turned, the degradation into which they sank. The cultural theory which the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century had inherited from the nineteenth gave artists a dangerous potency, the all too useful capacity to become, in Stalin’s words, “engineers of human souls”. Stalin’s amateur interest in classical music – he reputedly owned ninety-three opera recordings, writing critical remarks on his record sleeves – did nothing to protect composers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich from the cultural policy of a regime which saw no role for anything that smacked of autonomous art. Shostakovich’s output veered between the cryptic privacy of his chamber music, the crassness of his patriotic cantatas and songs, and the still-contested “irony” of the major public works. Ross’s analysis of the possibility of irony in music is at one and the same time sceptical and appreciative. “To talk about musical irony”, he writes, “we first have to agree 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.” His concluding advice is that one should “stay alert to multiple levels of meaning”, making Shostakovich’s symphonies, the Fifth or even the supposedly propagandistic Seventh, “rich experience[s]”. The consequence of Ross’s superbly nuanced historical accounts of both Prokofiev’s and Shostakovich’s music is to send one back to the music with new ears.
In any aspirant totalitarian regime, cultural producers like musicians have to be overseen, goaded, persecuted and petted. Hitler’s Germany was different only in that a musical vision of politics was uniquely central to the nightmare that was played out in the Reich between 1933 and 1945. It wasn’t that music was too important not to be politicized, more that politics was music in another form; “Politics aspired to the condition of music, not vice versa”, as Ross puts it. The threatening rhetoric of Hitler’s coded language about the Jews from the Kroll Opera speech of 1939 on the eve of war, and the speeches from the period of the exterminations themselves, are drenched in Wagner, and Ross acutely picks out the references to Parsifal in the Führer’s tirades. Hitler’s very rise to power, his acquisition of the respectability which eased his accession, were eased by the musical culture he shared with the Wagner clan, which supported him from the early 1920s on, and whose fads and tastes – vegetarianism, animal rights, dabbling in Eastern mysticism – he enthusiastically adopted.
For Ross, the Nazi infatuation with music is the crux of his story. If nineteenth-century German politics and philosophy and musical endeavour made classical music unprecedentedly momentous, its implication in the near-annihilation of European civilization by the mid-century robbed it of moral authority, a collapse with which classical music still lives, sixty years on. As Ross points out, trivially but accurately, “when any self-respecting Hollywood archcriminal sets out to enslave mankind, he listens to a little classical music to get in the mood”.
It is Ross’s dissection of the career of Richard Strauss which most tellingly encapsulates classical music’s twentieth-century tragedy. The book opens with the Graz premiere of Salomé in 1906 (it had had its very first performance earlier the previous year in Dresden), conducted by the composer, and attended by Puccini, Schoenberg, Berg, Zemlinsky and Johann Strauss’s widow, but also very probably by a little-known Austrian teenager called Adolf Hitler. By the mid-1930s, Strauss is enthusiastically hailing the new regime: “Thank God, finally a Reich Chancellor who is interested in art!”. By 1942, he is, at once brave and pathetic, demanding entrance at Theresienstadt – “I am the composer Richard Strauss” – to try and rescue his Jewish daughter-in-law’s grandmother. By 1945, he is writing the profoundly disillusioned Metamorphosen and trying to trade on his American fame – “I am the composer of Rosenkavalier and Salomé” – to gain preferential treatment from the occupying American forces. As with Shostakovich, the moral and historical complexities lead one back to the music.
Ross’s broad historical argument, and his moral tale about music and power, occupy the central chapters of the book and inform much of the rest of it. His engagement with Stravinsky, Berg, Schoenberg, Sibelius and Britten is infectious; his accounts of New Deal arts policy, US Army sponsorship of Darmstadt Modernism, or 1960s interactions between art and pop music, are revelatory. As for the music itself, Alex Ross’s brave avoidance of musical notation and brilliant use of metaphorical and descriptive language, means that The Rest is Noise grapples with the actual stuff of music as few other books have done. And if you want to hear the sounds themselves, you can always go to his website at www.therestisnoise.com, and listen.
Ian Bostridge's numerous recordings include works by Schubert, Britten