Monthly Archives: November 2015

Column: The “non-political composers” and works that weren’t quite such

I recently realised many of my favourite historical composers were political in their lives and works. Sadly, that fact seldom got delivered through historical filters. In my output, I’m aiming to stay more connected to the world we are living in. Being a composer, one way to do this is to compose music that inhabits a political dimension.

To speak through personal examples, I very much enjoy vocal music by many organised religious denominations. This includes music for Buddhist ceremonies, any unspecified Hindustani music, early Christian hymns, Islamic Quran reciting, and existential-flavoured music from the 1600’s Protestant Christian Germany. Me being a lifelong atheist and somewhat uninvolved with organised religions plays no part in me enjoying this music. Some of these lyrics I do understand yet much of the music is conveyed even without the semantics. The concept of vocal music, especially that featuring a solo vocalist or homophonic choral music, has the effect of persuasion or influencing people around oneself, which is what politics is all about – the opinions presented in the music don’t even have to be proven or indisputable.

To make and cater music is to make an impact. In the kinds of music that are very abstract, this impact can be hard to pinpoint. Some hints can be derived from titles or authorised descriptions of the works. To me, a composer should feel free to make an impact in as many ways and using as many channels as they deem appropriate. This can mean using visuals, spatials, smells, and politically interpretable elements in addition to sound. The accuracy and efficiency of the selected medium and the width of that concept’s impact is all that counts. I would state that there has been politics in organised sound as long as there has been organised sound. Sounds easily get culturally and politically coded and contextualised. The sounds in our (field) environment already carry connotations before they are seized by a composer and crafted into organised sound.
In the following conclusion, I try to show how music and politics have historically intertwined.

Hildegard von Bingen. Being a woman, Hildegard must have done a great amount of valued work in order to even get recorded in the mostly patriarchal history of music. To happen, it required an exclusively female circle of musicianship in an abbey. Hildegard has set an example to further composers and musicians who don’t happen to identify with male culture and aren’t a person-with-a-penis.

Josquin DesPrez. Sought out from the Franco-Flemish region to northern Italy and to the centers of political and economic power. As I’ve been to Mantova and Ferrara I can tell the premises still are inspiring. In the Palazzo Ducale of Mantova there are some extant political messages carved on the walls in the disguise of musical notation, presentative of Josquin’s environment. Josquin’s Miserere is rumoured to be structurally based on a text by Savonarola, the local religious-political figure.

G.P. da Palestrina. As a composer and a human being, worked in towards musical experimentation and married more or less independently of dogmatic demands from the pope of the day.

J.S.Bach. The oratorios, passions, and liturgical cantatas seem to be a rather honest body of Christianity-inspired work. It is here that Bach opts for sometimes mediocre but committed lyrics in the composer’s own hand, and for other poets’ lyrics in an old-fashioned manner. The choice of obsolete texts matched to the choice of setting them to some equally old chorale tunes. The Latin masses seem to me to make the point of a shared belief, thus lessening the gap between the Protestant-Catholic divide. It must have been a wise political move as not all courts in Bach’s sphere of work were Protestant. Nevertheless, there are many earnest occurrences of the word “Heiden” (heathens), showing that Bach wasn’t officially that comfortable with many belief systems and made a minor point about it. The Peasant cantata makes the point of 18th century urbanism at the expense of rural values. The Coffee cantata discusses and eventually favours a recent societal change. Many of Bach’s letters to officials of the day include a plead for more political resources through work opportunity, or for more artistic agency. For Bach, belief in a Christian god seems to encompass all artistic enterprise, as there are numerous exchanges between vocal Christian and purely instrumental music. Around 1735, Bach also undertook research to locate their own artistic lineage and promote compositions by previous family generations. After a youthful trip to Lübeck, Bach never wanted or was able to leave Saxony, yet another local political statement. Some choices of sounds, such as the lute, gambas, and falsettists, and on the other hand, the contrabassoon and a famous encounter with the tempered Silbermann clavichord, point at directions both in the past and in the future.

Chevalier de Saint-George. Although probably not the composer’s intention, Saint-George’s mere dark skin color became in some European observers’ eyes a political statement. To some degree it hindered the highly skilful composer’s contributions and advancement within the Parisian power structures of the late 1700’s. In this case, the politics were not made by the composer but the audience decided and imposed the composer’s politics.

W.A.Mozart. Most of Mozart’s opera libretti have had a political and very present-day agenda, and the music emphasised this agenda, instead of curtailing it. Mozart must have felt an outsider in whichever society the composer was in, making the need for such an outlet of thoughts.

L.van Beethoven. An extremely influential figure for the politics concerning composers’ employment and emphasising the individuality of a creative person. Also one of the earliest composers to commodify music towards a large audience of consumers.

A.Schoenberg. An aesthetic visionary and a cultural representative for the Jewish-Jewish community in Christian-Germanic circles. Any religious music hardly escapes being political, and especially in the historical and then ongoing politically fragile situation before and after WWII. It seems not as much of Schoenberg’s early musical enterprise as commonly mentioned can really be attributed to questions of double Jewishness or being treated an outsider in the discriminatory Viennese turn-of-the 20th-century environment, though. The formulation of dodecaphony and Schoenberg’s statements about it were intended to be political, however – for instance those emphasising its necessity for a (perceived) German hegemony in composition.

L.Russolo. Worked towards a more relevant use of and representation for noise elements in occidental music and in the Italian culturally regressive situation.

L.Nono. On visiting Darmstadt, Nono, stemming from a wealthy family background, absorbed the anti-fascist mindset of the time. The commitment to this political ideology was what put Nono apart from some other Darmstadtian composer figures. The composer also took advantage of power structures by getting married with the daughter of A.Schoenberg. In my opinion, Nono’s music has a mostly well-formed and valid moral dimension that luckily not always has to be thought of as relevant to the listening experience.