I’ve been most impressed by the manner in which these composers, in these works, took uncompromising moral and/or political stands.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
That didn’t take long. By Wednesday morning, as this year’s election result became clear, the artistic community responded with – what else? – a meme featuring a picture of Toni Morrison above the quote attributed to her that “[t]his is precisely the time when artists go to work – not when everything is fine, but in times of dread.” It’s a powerful statement and one that can easily be made into something of a rallying cry. Hopefully, many of today’s brightest and best will respond accordingly.
As I was considering the observation, I found myself thinking increasingly of music that I admire that hails either from “times of dread” or from composers responding to urgent political and moral concerns during other periods. There’s a lot, and much of it is extraordinary – though I’m quick to point out that more than a few pieces that came to mind derive from circumstances so horrifying and extreme that none of us in this country can (at least as of yet) fully relate. But the music speaks powerfully and nobly and, as we enter a new era of uncertainty, it’s worth pondering.
Below is a list of fifteen of those pieces (by thirteen different composers). While some of this music may offer some sort of balm or comfort for those still in shock, or may simply remind us that, sooner or later, every generation faces dark times, neither of those goals are my chief aim in compiling this tally.
Rather, as I’ve thought on this body of music, I’ve been most impressed by the manner in which these composers, in these works, took uncompromising moral and/or political stands. For some of them, this was a riskier proposition than it was for others. Arvo Pärt, for instance, found himself on the wrong side of Soviet censors. Karl Amadeus Hartmann literally saw the Holocaust marching past his front door. Leonard Bernstein was surveilled by the FBI for his supposed Communist sympathies. None of this baker’s dozen were (or are) perfect or above reproach: they’re simply individuals responding to circumstances above and beyond their control. In that, though, they can be models for all of us.
Certainly not all art is political or deals in terms of morality; nor should it. But there are times, like ours, that call more loudly than others for some concerted, artistic response. The list below shows how some Western composers took up the call in their days. As we look ahead and refocus our energies, perhaps there are lessons to be learned – for musical artists and their audiences alike – that can help us chart that forward course. Besides, if those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, we have nothing to lose and all to gain in considering what these pieces have to tell us.
Beethoven, Fidelio (1805, rev. 1814)
Beethoven was no stranger to making bold, cosmic pronouncements with his music. The Ninth Symphony, after all, envisions a world in which “alle Menschen werden Brüder,” and goes on to paint that ideal with music of striking – and even, today, somewhat jarring – stylistic inclusivity. Fidelio, his only completed opera, premiered in Vienna just after Napoleon’s army occupied the city in 1805; its final revision debuted less than a year before Waterloo. In the piece, Beethoven made one of the most enduring statements against political oppression, with the opera’s heroine, Leonore, risking her life to rescue her husband, Florestan, from imprisonment and certain death at the hands of the villainous governor Don Pizarro. Yes, the characters are somewhat one-dimensional and Leonore’s triumph at the end has a bit of Deus-ex-machina about it, but this is a work whose moral of liberty and justice has never been out of fashion and whose exuberant conclusion offers perhaps the most perfectly triumphant music in the Western canon.
Brahms, Symphony no. 4 (1885)
Seventy years after Fidelio, Johannes Brahms, pessimistic about Europe’s intellectual and political drift and deeply disturbed by the rising clouds of anti-Semitism, penned, by far, the 19th century’s bleakest major symphonic essay. Today, it’s such a familiar piece that its unrelenting grimness can be lost a bit in performance, but it’s still there: the implacably descending lines, the pregnant pauses, the yearning chromaticism, and the resolute denial of light shining through at the end. This is Brahms at his most austere, nihilistic, persuasive – and honest.
Gershwin, Strike Up the Band (1927, rev. 1930), Of Thee I Sing (1931), Let ‘em Eat Cake (1933)
After Porgy and Bess, most of George Gershwin’s music for the stage hasn’t shown the same resilience as musicals by the likes of Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, and Leonard Bernstein. Part of the problem lies in its topicality: Gershwin and his collaborators (one of them often being his brother, Ira) were men of their day who took to gleefully skewering their own era. Their works haven’t always aged well as a result. Gershwin’s trio of political satires, though, continue to pack a punch – especially of late.
Strike Up the Band, which, in its original version, had the United States going to war with Switzerland over a trade dispute (the revision relegated the war to a dream sequence), was the first. Its plot evidently cut too close to still-raw memories of World War 1 and the show proved a commercial failure.
Not so Of Thee I Sing, which came next. It was a triumph with audiences and critics, alike: the book and lyrics took home the Pulitzer Prize for 1931, among other awards. Savaging the ineffectual Hoover administration, it follows the travails of a presidential candidate running on a “love” platform who vows to marry the winner of a beauty contest in Atlantic City. He falls for another girl, though, and, after his election, the threat of his impeachment (and war) owing to breach of contract is only averted as his wife gives birth to twins while it’s decided that the vice president can marry the beauty-pageant winner.
Perhaps the timeliest installation of the trilogy is the last, Let ‘em Eat Cake, which, just nine months after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, imagined a Fascist dictatorship set up in the United States. Much of it is silly – at the end, the former dictator and his nemesis decide to go into business together selling clothes – but the fickleness of the crowds, the inanity of their reasoning for joining in with a revolution, and the specter of authoritarianism taking root in this country now appears more disturbing and prophetic than ever before.
Weill, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930)
Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht teamed up for some of the most scathing social commentaries of the 1920s and ‘30s, the most famous of which is The Three-Penny Opera. But their most ambitious collaboration was likely Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, a brutal satire of a capitalist utopia in which hedonism and individualism reign and comingle to chaotic and disastrous ends. It’s a devastating opera, one that really ought to be more widely known for its perpetual (and ever-growing) relevance.
Hartmann, Concerto funebre (1939)
Karl Amadeus Hartmann was that rarest of breeds: an anti-Nazi German who had the means to emigrate but chose, instead, to remain in his homeland. After Hitler’s rise, he withdrew his music from performances in Germany and, eventually, German-occupied Europe, subsisting on his wife’s family’s fortune, all the while composing music to protest the daily goings-on around him and keeping them in the safety of his desk drawer for a later time. It remains a surprising (and controversial) position to have taken, but some of Hartmann’s output from the period of the Reich is among the most potent music written during the last hundred years.
The Concerto funebre is one of those works. Composed just as World War 2 began, it took as its theme Nazi aggression (particularly the annexation of Prague earlier in 1939). Its last movement is based on a popular song called “Unsterblich Opfer” (“Immortal Victims”), a tune that also found its way into resistance-themed compositions by Shostakovich as well as Czech composers of the day. Expressively, it’s a tough nut to crack – Hartmann described the concerto as depicting “[t]he intellectual and spiritual hopelessness of the period” – but it’s one you can’t look away from, all the same.
Shostakovich, Symphony no. 8 (1943)
Shostakovich remains one of the 20th century’s most scrutinized composers and getting to the bottom of what his music is about – whether Communist propaganda, coded resistance to Stalinist dictates, or some combination of the two – will likely never be fully resolved. A good deal of his war music, though, speaks with a clarity that far exceeds the politics of posthumous interpretation. The Eighth Symphony probably does this best. Written in 1943, after Shostakovich’s evacuation from besieged Leningrad, it offers no grandiose flag waving, no hint of triumph to come. Quite the opposite: this is a piece in which survival itself is the only goal. It doesn’t matter how one makes it through, just that one does.
Dallapiccola, Il prigioniero (1944-48)
Luigi Dallapiccola’s harrowing one-act masterpiece hails from the end of World War 2 and the beginning of the Cold War. Based on the writings of Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and Charles de Coster, it tells of an unnamed prisoner who’s encouraged by his jailor to escape only to learn, in the end, that he’s been tricked by none other than the Grand Inquisitor. Freedom, in this world at least, appears to be no more than an illusion. Musically, it’s a stunner – think Berg meets Puccini – that packs a world of provocation and thought into less than an hour.
Bernstein, Candide (1956, rev. 1988)
Of all of Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway musicals, Candide followed the most tortured creative path. The original version, with lyrics by Lillian Hellman, was a famous flop, but subsequent revisions have kept it at least on the fringes of the repertoire ever since. Its difficulty straddling the line between musical and operetta has never been fully resolved, though Bernstein’s final revised version, which he completed two years before his death in 1990 and recorded (brilliantly) with the London Symphony in his last December, seem to establish it firmly in the latter camp. Regardless, its assault on the absurdity of McCarthyism and study of the inherent wickedness in human nature continues to ring powerfully. I’ve already argued that we would do better to emulate Bernstein’s brand of American patriotism. His politics might be another matter entirely – they were quite messy, complex, and sometimes simplistic – but it’s hard to argue that his heart wasn’t in the right place. If only this world was filled with more like him.
Pärt, Credo (1968)
Before he was a “holy minimalist,” Arvo Pärt dabbled in the avant-garde of the 1960s. Evidently, it wasn’t a creatively-rewarding experiment and he soon gave it up, but his work in that area resulted in at least one striking piece. Scored for solo piano, chorus, and orchestra, Credo sets two verses from the Gospel of Matthew (5:38-39) plus the statement “I believe in Jesus Christ” (in Latin). It also quotes Bach – the first prelude from Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier opens and closes the proceedings – and features one of the most spectacularly catastrophic-sounding episodes in the canon when everything breaks down during its middle section. Especially for a composer living in the Eastern bloc just fifteen years after the death of Stalin, it’s a powerful statement of religious faith and the expression of a politico-aesthetic worldview that refused to truckle to the requirements of a totalitarian regime. And the government noticed: Credo was one of Pärt’s envelope-pushing scores that eventually led to his music being temporarily banned by Soviet authorities.
Rzewski, The People United Shall Never Be Defeated (1975)
Like the Pärt, Frederic Rzewski’s epic variations on this Chilean song draws on the model of Bach, in this case the Goldberg Variations. The Rzewski’s thirty-six variations, divided into six sets of six, run the gamut from neo-Romanticism to improvisation by way of all sorts of extended techniques. Technically, it’s a staggering accomplishment but, like with Beethoven, every compositional feat he employs serves a specific expressive end; the result is, even more than being a left-leaning political and musical manifesto, a composition of intense spiritual depth born out of social upheaval.
Wolfe, Arsenal of Democracy (1993)
Julia Wolfe’s response to FDR’s “arsenal of democracy” being taken to “terrifying and absurd proportions” in the early ‘90s is about as a furious a musical statement as they come: uncompromising in its energy, intensity, dissonance, and emotional integrity.
Glass, Appomattox (2007, rev. 2015)
Philip Glass’s operatic meditation on the senselessness of violence and war ought to have special resonance. Revised for performances last year at Washington National Opera to include scenes flashing between the end of the Civil War to the Civil Rights era and present day, its portrayals of racial hatred strike far too close to home, especially in light of recent events.
Adams, Sheherezade.2 (2014)
John Adams is no stranger to either musical controversy or writing pieces that engage the big questions of the day. Sheherezade.2, a dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra, is but his most recent foray into the fray. Inspired by the Sheherezade of 1001 Nights and, as he puts it, “women under threat” in our own times, it’s an epic by any measure – his longest purely orchestral score to date – and an unforgettable portrait of a kind of ideal woman: smart, strong, crafty, and beautiful.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.