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Music and Revolutionary Politics

"Everything's right in America
If you're all white in America"

Stephen Sondheim and Leonard
Bernstein, West Side Story

Music doesn't exist in a vacuum and neither do musicians. Music has the power to influence the way people think and feel about issues of nationalism, class struggle, political affiliations and personal ethics. Many composers have used their music to present a political agenda or have affiliated themselves with movements which were considered radical by the mainstream of society. Mozart scandalized the world of the Hapsburgs with his operas where the class structure was turned on its head. In the operas with libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte (Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutte) the servants are the intelligent class who are totally in emotional control of the aristocrats, who are painted as licentious boors and idle oafs. In The Magic Flute, Mozart advances the cause of the Masonic order, a secret society also immortalized in his Masonic Funeral Music. Beethoven was caught up in the Romantic fight for individual liberty and expressed his love of freedom and equality in Egmont and Fidelio. He was infatuated with the dashing figure of Napoleon whom he felt would lead the European world to a new fraternal harmony, even naming his mighty Symphony #3 the "Eroica" (heroic) in honor of the general. However, he quickly became disillusioned when he realized that Bonaparte was just another tyrant in fresh costume and revoked the dedication. Wagner was caught up in the revolutionary fervor of 1848 and spent one fateful night in the streets of Dresden participating in a general rebellion of students and disenfranchised intellectuals. This activity would haunt him for the rest of his life as he had to live for many years as a fugitive in exile (mostly in Switzerland) and always had difficulty in obtaining funds for his ambitious and costly operatic projects because of the taint of radicalism.

In Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century left wing dissidents fomented the beginnings of the downfall of the Tsarist state and established their own revolutionary government by 1920 (during the revolution Vladimir Horowitz fled Russia after his piano was hurled from an upper story window). Lenin decreed that music should speak directly to the workers and should serve some useful purpose in society. His minister of education, Anatol Lunacharsky, fostered a period of tolerance and even significantly improved the conditions and availability of opera, as this was a popular art form with the working class. The Association of Contemporary Musicians was founded in 1923 and promoted many important modern music events including the Leningrad premiere of Alban Berg's Wozzeck soon after it was written. The rival Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians espoused a conservative musical agenda with choral and song forms geared to workers' participation as their ultimate objective. Both of these organizations were replaced in 1932 by the official Union of Soviet Composers which sought to control the production of all music for the benefit of the people. Before this group took control Soviet music was actually highly adventurous. The extremely radical Futurist movement took hold in Russia and avant-garde composers like Alexander Mosolov published songs with texts from newspaper advertisements. In an attempt to combine modern orchestral technique and Soviet populism, Mosolov wrote a series of "industrial" pieces, the most famous of which is Iron Foundry (1927), a ballet which dramatizes the goings-on at an actual factory. Serge Prokofieff, safely in exile in Paris, produced the ballet The Steel Step with Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. This work glorifies not only the factory but the collective farm as well and is filled with vital rhythmic images of high energy and productive optimism and should have been a natural to win the approval of the commissars, however the dissonances of the harmonic idiom alienated its Russian official critics. Although Dmitri Shostakovich had written his Symphony #3, subtitled The First of May, and included a choral finale celebrating the cause of the workers, he was already under suspicion before the disastrous Moscow premiere of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Although it is not correct that Stalin sat directly above the brass section, it is true that he left the opera before the last act and was highly displeased by both the explicit sexual nature of the piece (the adultery is accompanied by lewd slides on the trombones) and the severe dissonances. The next morning an unsigned article (reportedly written by Stalin himself) in Pravda denounced the work and established the new rules for the creation of music.

According to this new doctrine there were two types of music. The desirable kind was "socialist realism", that is music with a clear socialist content which could be communicated to the "international working class" and which consisted of consonant, major-key harmonics which would foster productivity and, above all, optimism and faith in the Five Year Plans of the government. All other music was "formalism", that is music which separated political content from form and was strictly denounced as decadent. Shostakovich quickly announced his total agreement with the new definition of music (composers who disagreed were known to disappear) and produced the ballet The Limpid Stream, glorifying the pastoral pleasures of the collective farm in a less dissonant manner, but this too was criticized in Pravda for being "undignified". The composer tried to skirt the issue by returning to symphonic composition, but was rebuffed when his Symphony #4 had to be withdrawn before its premiere because some of the members of the Leningrad Philharmonic refused to rehearse it.

Stalin realized that the international revolution was not on the immediate horizon and so he began to focus on nationalistic issues. His personal love of folk music led him to assign the cream of Soviet composers to venture into the hinterlands for the collection and study of folk songs (there is an interesting parallel here to the left-wing collectors of folksongs in America, such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, who would eventually run afoul of the government) and to compose pieces that would reflect the glory of the Soviet peoples. Some, like Mosolov who was shipped to Turkestan, were obviously being punished for their radical compositions. Others, like Rheinhold Gliere, were less than willing participants but took the opportunity to create significant music. Gliere was sent to the wilds of Azerbaijan but thrived at Baku and Tashkent, writing the operas Shakh-Senem, Ghulsara, and Leily and Medzhnun as well as gathering material for his most famous composition, the ballet Red Poppy. Officially sanctioned works in the Soviet Union were mostly drab depictions of past glories, like Kabalevsky's Colas Breugnon, or sterile propaganda like Dzerzhinsky's Quiet Flows the Don. Prokofieff returned to Russia in the 1930's to write film scores for Eisenstein but he was eventually hauled before the "revolutionary tribunal" and forced to write tone poems (The Volga Meets the Don, Winter Bonfires) that pleased the party line. The most successful Soviet composer was Tikhon Khrennikov, secretary-general of the Union of Soviet Composers. He produced a steady stream of diatonic orchestral compositions and operas which were models of socialist realism. However, many prominent musicians lost their freedom or even their lives during this musical reign of terror.

Outside of Russia, left-wing music flourished in several countries. In Weimar Germany Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill collaborated on operas which attacked the capitalist system. The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny was a vicious description of the effects of money on American society. With a boxing ring as its central stage set, Mahagonny is populated by creatures of sensuous avarice and is most famous for the Alabama Song ("Oh, show us the way to the next little dollar!") later recorded by the Doors. Brecht and Weill's greatest effort is Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), an adaptation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera which was an English theater piece from the Baroque period. Here we have a world where the evil capitalist society is mirrored by the underworld, where the beggars are all under the control of a money-making conglomerate and where the murderer MacHeath will eventually become a bank president. The music of Weill is marvelously evocative of a decayed society and is most familiar from the streetsinger's introduction to the opera, known as the "Moritat" of Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife). The hurdy-gurdy and the pianola are used to create just the right atmosphere of the back alley (there is a priceless recording of Brecht singing this number) and the audience is left feeling just a little bit unclean after such a decadent introduction. Of even more raw power is the song now known as "Pirate Jenny" in which a girl tells of her secret wish to kill all of her acquaintances (the Marxist composer Ernst Bloch called this vision "apocalyptic") and sail off on a black freighter which will carry her to solitary paradise (a ghastly parody of Senta's longing aria in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman). Originally written for the lead role of Polly, this song was quickly transferred to the character of the prostitute Jenny because of the remarkable abilities of the creator of this minor role, the former circus performer Lotte Lenya (Mrs. Kurt Weill), whose dark look and acerbic voice were perfect for this tour-de-force of musical savagery. Ms. Lenya reprised her role in the G.W. Pabst film of Die Dreigroschenoper (with a screenplay by another Communist, the Hungarian Bela Balazs who had earlier written the libretto for Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle) and is, with Marlene Dietrich, the image of decaying Germany before the advent of the Nazis. It should be pointed out that although The Threepenny Opera is decidedly left-wing, there are touches of Fascism throughout and it is a profoundly disturbing fact that the "Cannon Song", with its images of grinding native populations into steak tartare, was the favorite of the crowds in the Germany of 1928. Brecht and Weill both fled the Nazis and ended up in the United States, but they had already had a falling out, ostensibly about performance rights but ultimately (and ironically) about money. However after Weill rejected the idea of Paul Robeson starring in an all-black version of Threepenny, the two Germans eventually allowed another left-wing composer, Marc Blitzstein, to translate the work and present it on the New York stage.

Brecht continued his collaborations with the German composer Hanns Eisler. A student of Arnold Schoenberg, Eisler joined the German Communist Party in 1926 and began to write articles for Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), working with Brecht on a teaching piece called Die Massnahme and orchestrating songs of the leader of the Sparticists Rosa Luxembourg. Eisler escaped the Nazis by coming to America where he collaborated with another Socialist intellectual, Theodor Adorno, on the book Composing for the Films. Both he and Brecht have the distinction of being tossed out of two countries, as the hearings led by Senator Joseph McCarthy investigated them both for "unAmerican activities". The hearings went badly from the start. The panel of Senators, who had received information from the freshman congressman from California Richard Nixon about Communist activity in Hollywood, refused to believe Brecht when he told them that he made his living as a poet. Charles Chaplin, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein (with friends like these, who needed enemies?) all came to their aid, however each of these men was also being investigated and both Germans were deported. Eisler landed on his feet, becoming the most respected composer in the new East German Democratic Republic, even composing its national anthem. Adorno was the editor of Anbruch in his native Frankfurt from 1928 to 1931. He was the first to identify the "culture industry" and its propagation of music that was little more than candy for the ear. Adorno reasoned (like Plato) that this type of music made man soft, malleable and easy to control. Whereas Plato thought that this was a good thing because it facilitated state control, Adorno was horrified by the phenomenon and broke openly with Stalin's policies of enforced optimism. As a member of the Hollywood community he advised Thomas Mann on musical matters while the novelist was writing his Doctor Faustus, the story of a composer, Adrian Leverkuehn, who makes a deal with the devil and invents the twelve-tone system of composition (Mann wanted to dedicate the work to his neighbor Arnold Schoenberg, but the Austrian composer was not interested in being any further associated with the destruction of Western art and so declined). Meanwhile Weill was writing left-wing musicals for Broadway, producing the socially revolutionary Street Scene with lyrics by the black poet Langston Hughes and based on a play by Elmer Rice. Weill depicts life in a tenement slum in New York and shows how economic pressures lead to subjugation, resignation and even murder. His children's game sequence shows what the poor think of "the gents on Park Avenue" and the ending, as a new couple moves into the murdered adulteress' apartment, continues the grim cycle of poverty and despair much in the same way as the ending of Berg's Wozzeck, a source of much of the atmosphere in Street Scene.

In post war Europe Communist activity was strong and two major composers of the avant-garde embraced it openly. Hans Werner Henze was a great admirer of the Cultural Revolution in China and often dressed in Mao jackets in the 1960's. At the premiere of his oratorio Das Floss der Medusa in Hamburg he placed a red flag on the stage. When the singers refused to perform under such circumstances, Henze cancelled the performance rather than give up his symbolism. He moved to Italy and joined the strong Communist party there. One of its leaders was the composer Luigi Nono, who was so enthralled with the Chinese system that he and his wife Nuria (the daughter of Arnold Schoenberg) gave their daughter the Chinese name Tai-yang Cheng. Nono used actual recordings from factories for his electronic piece La Fabbrica Illuminata, created a choral montage on themes ranging from the assassination of Malcolm X to the Vietnam war in his Contrappunto Dialettico alla Mente and used the voice of Fidel Castro in his Four Entonces Comprendo. The Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, most famous for his scores for the films Z and Zorba the Greek, was arrested for his Communist activities and held on a farm near Corinth. Eventually an international outcry forced the right-wing Greek government to release him. The Korean composer Isang Yun was kidnapped by South Korean police in Hamburg and interred, along with his wife, in a Seoul prison. He was also released after an international protest, although had to hire bodyguards to foil a second attempt by the South Koreans to return him for political punishment. In China classical music was composed along strict party lines by committee and, during the horrible days of the Red Guard, concert pianists had their fingers broken by zealous "patriots".

In America the great basso Paul Robeson espoused Communism in the 1920's and eventually settled in Russia where he became an ardent apologist for the Stalin regime, being awarded its International Peace Prize in 1952. Marc Blitzstein was an avowed Communist whose major work The Cradle Will Rock (1937) was so scandalous that it was banned from the stage by the theatrical unions of New York. Undaunted, Blitzstein hired Orson Welles to direct the opera and the bad boy of the American theater placed the singers in the audience and put Blitzstein himself at the piano in the orchestra pit. His version of The Threepenny Opera was a huge success, running for years on Broadway. Blitzstein, like Copland and Bernstein, was an East Coast Jewish intellectual and soon ran into trouble with the McCarthy Commission. Because of McCarthyism the quintessentially American patriotic work, Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, was barred from the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Leonard Bernstein was denied the position for which he had been personally groomed by Serge Koussevitsky when the Brahmins of the Boston Symphony refused to hire him as their principal conductor in the 1940's because of his left-wing leanings and the rumors of his homosexuality (another parallel to Blitzstein). Borrowing heavily from Blitzstein's Regina as well as Gounod's Romeo and Juliet ("I feel pretty" is a reworking of "Je Veux Vivre") and recreating many of the effects of Street Scene, Bernstein collaborated with Stephen Sondheim on the powerful West Side Story and its depiction of life in New York's Hell's Kitchen. Even more left-wing is the opera Candide with its questioning of life in this "best of all possible worlds" and its attacks on McCarthyism. Although Bernstein had a very successful career with the New York Philharmonic he was often investigated and harassed by both the FBI and the CIA.

Not all of the musical protests of the twentieth century have come from the popular arena (there was supposed to have been a joint concert involving Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Beatles in the late 1960's but it never materialized). Music has great emotional power and in a programmatic context can deeply influence on an intellectual as well as a visceral level. Hitler endeavored to use the music of Wagner, Bruckner, Strauss and Orff to promote his theory of Aryan supremacy and the Stalinists tried to use music as an integral part of the agitprop. Music can be controlling but it can also be liberating. Under current conditions music is primarily international, but vigilance is ever necessary to keep it from becoming a tool for insidious propaganda and hidden agendas.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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