Guardian: But Music and Politics Have Always Mixed…

From The Guardian: But music and politics have always mixed

The LPO’s chief executive claims that music and politics do not mix. Tom Service begs to differ

Beethoven’s “political” statement…? Fidelio (with Karita Mattila as Leonore) in the Royal Opera House’s 2007 production. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

…and with all the sound and fury, as Charlotte Higgins says in her arts diary, the London Philharmonic Orchestra management seem rather to have scored an orchestral own-goal by suspending four musicians for putting their name, and that of their employers, to a letter protesting the appearance of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms. Tim Walker, the LPO’s Chief Executive, and its Chairman, Martin Hí¶hmann are hoisted by their own petard in claiming in the same breath that the orchestra “would never restrict the right of its players to express themselves freely” – and then suspending them for doing precisely that. The claim that “for the LPO, music and politics do not mix” is not only philosophically wrong, it’s historically inaccurate as well. It’s not just that the musicians recently participated in what can only be described as a political act of support for their colleagues in Holland’s orchestras who are currently threatened with redundancy, by filming a special performance of Soldier of Orange for them. Further back in its history, the LPO itself has form in dismissing players for political reasons. As Richard Witts points out in a letter to the Observer, the LPO sacked its manager, Thomas Russell, in 1952. The reason? He was a communist.

There may or may not be a hidden back-story to the LPO saga – pressure perhaps to take action against the musicians by the orchestra’s backers. But the point about all this is that whatever you think about the Israel Phil’s concert at the Proms and the protests (my opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the protests in the hall were misguided, but to take any action against a musician for putting their name, and their job title, next to a letter expressing their views, is a counter-productive over-reaction), there’s a bigger question about music and politics at stake. You can’t separate the two, and the attempt to try is itself political. To pretend that the performance, reception, and composition of music are activities that exist in a separate realm from the social and political realities of the world is a dangerous, utopian fantasy. If it were true, music (classical music especially) would only ever have the possibility of being an aesthetic entertainment, as opposed to the foment of ideas, emotions, and poetry that it really is.

In another letter to the Guardian, cellist Steven Isserlis makes the point that he wouldn’t want his appearances with British orchestras abroad to be protested because of our government’s decision to invade Iraq. And yet they could be, in the same way the Israel PO’s concert was. That’s only the crudest sense in which the huge machines of orchestral concert-giving and classical music in general are enmeshed in national and political questions. Some recent, concrete examples that disprove the LPO’s point: Valery Gergiev’s intervention with his Mariinsky Orchestra in the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia conflict, Krystian Zimerman’s interruption of his own recital to make a political speech in Los Angeles, and Daniel Barenboim’s manifestly supra-musical project with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. And that’s before you get to the entire history of classical music under the Soviets and the Nazis. Even more fundamentally, think of how BeethovenVerdi and Wagner – to name but three composers of hundreds who did the same – made their vision of the betterment of humanity an intrinsic part of the music they wrote. Cornelius CardewLuigi NonoHanns Eisler … the list goes on and on.

One of the most coherent thoughts on the subject comes from Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. In the forward to his epoch-making piece De Staat, composed in 1976, a setting/explosion/analysis of Plato’s words on music from The Republic and its effects on society, here’s what he says:

“Many composers view the act of composing as, somehow, above social conditioning. I contest that. How you arrange your musical material, the techniques you use and the instruments you score for, are largely determines by your own social circumstances and listening experience, and the availability of financial support. I do agree, though, that musical material – pitch, duration and rhythm – are beyond social conditioning: it is found in nature. However, the moment the musical material is ordered it becomes culture and hence a social entity.”

What’s true for composition is even more obvious for performance. Music and politics do mix. If they didn’t, the world would be a much less interesting place.



Comments are closed.