Liberals, Conservatives & Music

From “The ‘Mash of Myriad Sounds’” by Martin Kimmelman:

“The automatic equation of radical style with liberal politics and of conservative style with reactionary politics is a historical myth that does little justice to an agonizingly ambiguous historical reality,” Ross points out. Just so. Webern, he notes, idolized Hitler although the Nazis banned his atonal music. Shostakovich was Stalin’s favorite composer but he suffered notorious humiliation under the dictator’s thumb. Historians who have tried to reduce music’s meaning to certain political or social ideas have ignored music’s own essential ambiguity.

How then to hear this music? Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, first performed in 1934, was received at the time in Moscow as an exemplary model of Soviet culture, but Ross prefers to interpret it now as a “darker kind of monument to Stalin’s world.” Perhaps it is. During the 1950s at the Warsaw Autumn Festival, the Soviet bloc’s answer to the West’s avant-garde hothouse in Darmstadt, Germany, Krzysztof Penderecki’s 8´37—”an affair of shrieking cluster chords, sputtering streams of pizzicato, siren-like glissandos, and other Xenakis-like sounds,” as Ross writes—was embraced by Communist officials who should have loathed its atonality, after someone proposed the work be retitled Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.

“Music may not be inviolable, but it is infinitely variable, acquiring a new identity in the mind of every new listener,” as Ross acknowledges. “It is always in the world, neither guilty nor innocent, subject to the ever-changing human landscape in which it moves.” That’s as good a definition as any for modern art in general.

Read the whole thing at NYRB

via 3 quarks daily

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