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Art and music do not change the world

Shostakovich, Beethoven, Puccini wrote after the political facts

From Shostakovich performance. If a composer wrote something about the recent assault on the Capitol Building, half the audience would be pissed off.
From Shostakovich performance. If a composer wrote something about the recent assault on the Capitol Building, half the audience would be pissed off.

I cast a jaundiced eye at music composed based on current events. We’ve had several compositions along such lines performed in San Diego. We’ve had compositions about climate change, receding glaciers. immigration, police shootings, and transgender dynamics.

For the record, the practice is even worse in popular culture. According to Wikipedia, there are more than 160 songs about September 11th. Can you name any of them? Why were they written? What purpose did they serve? I think there are several problems with this practice.

Video:

Shostakovich: Symph. No 11 'The Year 1905' in G min op 103

Director Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky theatre

Director Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky theatre

For starters, there is the troubling idea that compositions based on current events are trying to capitalize on tragedy. Now there is nothing wrong with that if an appropriate amount of time has passed. For instance, I believe a new composition based on the story of Emmett Till could be a powerful and moving statement. Till was murdered in 1955.

If time hasn’t passed, the piece of music, in my opinion, comes off as at least partially opportunistic. It is the artistic equivalent of the lawyer with a reputation for chasing ambulances.

Another issue is that conflicting opinions exist concerning current events. If a composer wrote something in honor of or condemnation of the recent assault on the Capitol Building, half the audience would immediately be pissed off. This goes hand in hand with letting time pass. As time passes, opinions tend to become more uniform.

In the case of Emmett Till, the men who beat him to death were found to be innocent and I’m sure there was a significant percentage of the population that agreed with that—at the time. Now, 60 years later, opinion has solidified into a uniform condemnation of the men who killed a 14-year-old in cold blood.

Video:

Maria Callas: "Tosca" act.2 (5/5)

Murder Scene

Murder Scene

The third issue, that I can see, is that the composer is dictating the audience’s experience of the music. The composer is tyrannically directing the audience to a specific opinion and the emotions that go with that opinion.

Maybe a piece of music that was inspired by receding glaciers would land on audience members in a more profound way if the audience didn’t know it was about glaciers. Maybe an audience member who is experiencing the loss of a family member could find comfort in such a composition but that audience member has been told what to feel by the composer.

The feeling for receding glaciers appears to be a low-level sense of guilt. I don’t know, I’ve never met a receding glacier so it’s tough for me to connect with the idea.

Of course, if the audience doesn’t know the composition is about receding glaciers or immigration, then they won’t be aware. Ah, here we go. Awareness appears to be the new transcended experience for audiences.

Video:

Götterdämmerung (19/19) - Wagner, "Ring" Akt III -

Finale Erlösungsmotiv - Valencia 2008

Finale Erlösungsmotiv - Valencia 2008

I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to the opera or the symphony to be made aware of issues that are clearly in every social media and news feed I see every day on my phone. Trust me, I’m aware. There is an idea that art and music change the world and to do this, audiences must be made aware.

Art and music do not change the world. They might reflect a changing world or even, in very rare cases, guide a changing world. It should be noted that those pieces of music that happened to guide a changing world were not written with the intention of guiding a changing world.

The fact of the matter is that no piece of music ever written resulted in improved human rights and better access to justice.

To be fair, music history is littered with political pieces of music. Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 is about the 1905 massacre at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Shostakovich wrote the symphony in 1957. At the time, the USSR was involved in military action in Hungary. The tone of the symphony was considered to be a condemnation of the USSR's involvement. You will notice that it was not specifically about the 1957 war.

Beethoven's Symphony Nos. 3 and 5 are generally considered to be inspired by The French Revolution. However, there is nothing specific in Beethoven's music except for some subtle references to French revolutionary tunes in the 5th Symphony.

Puccini's opera Tosca is about freedom of expression. The main characters, Tosca and Cavaradossi, are both artists. Scarpia, the head of the police, tries to rape Tosca and tortures Cavaradossi. Tosca is set during the Napoleonic Wars, which ocurred about 90 years before the opera was written. Once again, it is not specifically about current events in Puccini's day. This allows a vast spectrum of experiences for the audience.

Perhaps the greatest political statement is Wagner's Ring Cycle. It is a condemnation of 19th Century capitalism and the European aristocracy.

In the end, the entire thing burns to the ground and nature is restored. Wagner intended this to happen. He wanted to burn down the existing social structures and create something of a utopia based on nature and simple craftsmanship. As intent as Wagner was, the entire message is wrapped in myth instead of specifics, that's what makes it great art.

Bad art is specific. Specific art also borders on propaganda.

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From Shostakovich performance. If a composer wrote something about the recent assault on the Capitol Building, half the audience would be pissed off.
From Shostakovich performance. If a composer wrote something about the recent assault on the Capitol Building, half the audience would be pissed off.

I cast a jaundiced eye at music composed based on current events. We’ve had several compositions along such lines performed in San Diego. We’ve had compositions about climate change, receding glaciers. immigration, police shootings, and transgender dynamics.

For the record, the practice is even worse in popular culture. According to Wikipedia, there are more than 160 songs about September 11th. Can you name any of them? Why were they written? What purpose did they serve? I think there are several problems with this practice.

Video:

Shostakovich: Symph. No 11 'The Year 1905' in G min op 103

Director Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky theatre

Director Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky theatre

For starters, there is the troubling idea that compositions based on current events are trying to capitalize on tragedy. Now there is nothing wrong with that if an appropriate amount of time has passed. For instance, I believe a new composition based on the story of Emmett Till could be a powerful and moving statement. Till was murdered in 1955.

If time hasn’t passed, the piece of music, in my opinion, comes off as at least partially opportunistic. It is the artistic equivalent of the lawyer with a reputation for chasing ambulances.

Another issue is that conflicting opinions exist concerning current events. If a composer wrote something in honor of or condemnation of the recent assault on the Capitol Building, half the audience would immediately be pissed off. This goes hand in hand with letting time pass. As time passes, opinions tend to become more uniform.

In the case of Emmett Till, the men who beat him to death were found to be innocent and I’m sure there was a significant percentage of the population that agreed with that—at the time. Now, 60 years later, opinion has solidified into a uniform condemnation of the men who killed a 14-year-old in cold blood.

Video:

Maria Callas: "Tosca" act.2 (5/5)

Murder Scene

Murder Scene

The third issue, that I can see, is that the composer is dictating the audience’s experience of the music. The composer is tyrannically directing the audience to a specific opinion and the emotions that go with that opinion.

Maybe a piece of music that was inspired by receding glaciers would land on audience members in a more profound way if the audience didn’t know it was about glaciers. Maybe an audience member who is experiencing the loss of a family member could find comfort in such a composition but that audience member has been told what to feel by the composer.

The feeling for receding glaciers appears to be a low-level sense of guilt. I don’t know, I’ve never met a receding glacier so it’s tough for me to connect with the idea.

Of course, if the audience doesn’t know the composition is about receding glaciers or immigration, then they won’t be aware. Ah, here we go. Awareness appears to be the new transcended experience for audiences.

Video:

Götterdämmerung (19/19) - Wagner, "Ring" Akt III -

Finale Erlösungsmotiv - Valencia 2008

Finale Erlösungsmotiv - Valencia 2008

I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to the opera or the symphony to be made aware of issues that are clearly in every social media and news feed I see every day on my phone. Trust me, I’m aware. There is an idea that art and music change the world and to do this, audiences must be made aware.

Art and music do not change the world. They might reflect a changing world or even, in very rare cases, guide a changing world. It should be noted that those pieces of music that happened to guide a changing world were not written with the intention of guiding a changing world.

The fact of the matter is that no piece of music ever written resulted in improved human rights and better access to justice.

To be fair, music history is littered with political pieces of music. Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 is about the 1905 massacre at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Shostakovich wrote the symphony in 1957. At the time, the USSR was involved in military action in Hungary. The tone of the symphony was considered to be a condemnation of the USSR's involvement. You will notice that it was not specifically about the 1957 war.

Beethoven's Symphony Nos. 3 and 5 are generally considered to be inspired by The French Revolution. However, there is nothing specific in Beethoven's music except for some subtle references to French revolutionary tunes in the 5th Symphony.

Puccini's opera Tosca is about freedom of expression. The main characters, Tosca and Cavaradossi, are both artists. Scarpia, the head of the police, tries to rape Tosca and tortures Cavaradossi. Tosca is set during the Napoleonic Wars, which ocurred about 90 years before the opera was written. Once again, it is not specifically about current events in Puccini's day. This allows a vast spectrum of experiences for the audience.

Perhaps the greatest political statement is Wagner's Ring Cycle. It is a condemnation of 19th Century capitalism and the European aristocracy.

In the end, the entire thing burns to the ground and nature is restored. Wagner intended this to happen. He wanted to burn down the existing social structures and create something of a utopia based on nature and simple craftsmanship. As intent as Wagner was, the entire message is wrapped in myth instead of specifics, that's what makes it great art.

Bad art is specific. Specific art also borders on propaganda.

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