Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Does "Music Trump Politics"? Dennis Prager and the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra

By Ted Gordon

Dennis Prager in 2013.  Photo Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez, LA Times (via Getty Images)

In March of this year, Guido Lamell, the music director of the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra (SMSO)—a community orchestra comprised mostly of volunteers, which was founded in 1945 by Los Angeles studio musicians— invited conservative radio personality Dennis Prager to guest conduct Haydn's Symphony No. 51 at the SMSO's annual fundraising concert, held at Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall. Prager had previously raised money for and conducted several orchestras in Southern California, he writes, because he "want[s] to expose as many people to classical music as possible." For Prager, "classical music" is a core component of Western culture, which he claims is under attack by secularism, multiculturalism, the Muslim faith, same-sex marriage, academia in general, and the "war on Christmas." In addition to his stance on "Western culture", Prager has claimed that "heterosexual AIDS [...] has been entirely manufactured by the Left," and has also recently teamed up with comedian Adam Corolla to make a documentary film about safe spaces, rape culture, and free speech on college campuses, tweeting "There's no culture of rape at our universities. There's a rape of the culture." In addition to finding Prager’s radio program “interesting,” Lamell praised Prager’s promotion of classical music, which has been a constant talking point in Prager’s show since he began his radio career in 1982. Lamell recalls that Prager "would play excerpts of classical music [...] and talk about the glories of Beethoven."

Prager’s invitation immediately sparked controversy, launching an otherwise insignificant performance of a Haydn symphony into the national spotlight. In an interview on National Public Radio, Lamell sidestepped political issues by arguing that his invitation to Prager was based solely on the the latter’s support for classical music, and the idea that Prager would draw a new kind of audience to the SMSO: "I never heard anyone else on national radio talking about classical music. We knew that he might be reaching an audience that classical arts don't always reach." Lamell's invitation was explicitly intended to create a new group of people for desiring, and taking pleasure in, classical music--a pleasure, according to Lamell, that is apolitical. Lamell argued that music and politics "are two entirely different worlds: Political discourse is one realm, and music is another realm.” Comparing music to an “eternal flame, Lamell chose his words carefully: “music trumps politics.” Prager, for his part, echoes this sentiment: "great music should transcend political differences."

Several members of the SMSO felt otherwise. Four performers wrote and co-signed a letter asking people not to attend the concert, arguing that Prager's presence would alienate their community of players, patrons, and audience--many of whom count themselves among the groups that Prager scorns: LGBTQ people, Muslims, and atheists. They write: "Dennis Prager's publicly stated positions are fundamentally at odds with our community's values and [...] the proposed concert would deeply damage our orchestra's relationship with our community." They cited Prager's moralizing, apocalyptic rhetoric and his hateful speech, including his propagation of the myth that homosexual men are endemic pedophiles; his attack on Representative Keith Ellison for choosing to be sworn into office on a Quran; his arguments for the virtue of racially homogenous societies; and his condemnation of multiculturalism as "the beginning of the end of the United States as we know it.”

In response, Prager published an article on August 1st in The National Review that declared: "they're trying to prevent me from conducting a symphony.” Prager presented the pushback against his role as guest conductor as an issue of free speech, of the "illiberal left" not being willing to allow him to conduct music because of his political views. The views in question, he argued, are not bigoted, racist, or hateful--terms which he claims have been "disemboweled" by the Left. Instead, Prager argues that they should be "tolerated" by a liberal society, just as his presence should be "tolerated" by an orchestra that had previously made attempts at supporting the LGBTQ community and attracting a racially diverse audience.

Prager's stance might be understood as a series of arguments that come close to "kettle logic": that he's not, in fact, hateful; even if the "Left" understands him as hateful, his position should be tolerated; and conducting a symphony is not even political speech, anyway. Yet Prager’s performance with the SMSO is of course political: it uses the “genius” of classical music as evidence towards his political ideology of “Western” supremacism. In addition, more practically speaking, his presence at this concert worked towards the creation of a new political group: people united by their supposedly “apolitical” support of "Western Art Music". In the National Review, a week before the concert, Prager wrote: "Like Haydn, I think music is one of those few things that can bring people together.”

So we must ask: who, exactly, was brought together by Prager and Lamell? On August 16th--four days after the violent eruption of racism, neo-Nazism, and white supremacy in Charlottesville--the SMSO performed to a nearly sold-out audience. Who attended? According to Rick Schultz’s review in the LA Times, there was a smattering of applause when Lamell asked the audience who was there from Santa Monica; when he asked "'Are there any fans of Dennis Prager here?’ The audience roared." Prager had exhorted his readership to buy tickets and attend the concert; when Lamell asked the audience at the beginning of the concert, “‘How many are hearing a symphony orchestra for the first time?’, the applause indicated a significant number." Lamell and Prager's desired “new audience” for classical music had certainly arrived. For Prager, Haydn's music mirrors the kind of sociality he wants to see in the world: as he said from the stage, it "represents an ideal of the world 'where we could all sublimate our egos for something that is good.'"

That one should “sublimate one’s ego” is the general logic that allows Prager to denounce what he likes to call "political correctness" from minority groups: LGBTQ people who speak out against homophobia, people of color who speak out against systemic racism, and women who speak out against rape culture. For Prager, these examples of what he calls “identity politics” are only problematic when marginalized people engage in them; he vigorously defends “Western culture” as an unmarked, but implicitly white, “Judeo-Christian” culture. Equating Haydn’s music with this ideology portrays it as a kind of "pure,” non-political cultural activity--which seems to have been convincing not only for Prager's fans, but also for Lamell and most of the orchestra that was able to "tolerate" Prager. As Prager noted after the concert, he sold out all but two rows of seats; only seven of 70 orchestra members refused to play; and the SMSO's Board of Directors invited him to conduct the orchestra again. Prager praised the "tolerance" of the SMSO's board: "these people put the interests of their orchestra, of music, and of tolerance ahead of their political and social views.” Prager's intolerance of women, people of color, queer, and secular people was tolerated because it was not seen as relevant to the “apolitical” performance of the music at hand: Haydn's Symphony No. 51.

Haydn, of course, has had a long history with politics. In addition to the widespread use of his Kaiserhymne by political entities ranging from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to to Nazi Germany, Haydn's "pure" instrumental music has also fueled explicit ethno-nationalism. Where Prager claims “race-blindness” while retaining coded language that leaves the whiteness of “Judeo-Christian” or “Western” culture unmarked, others have been more explicit about how music figures into their racial politics. Writing between world wars, Viennese music theorist Heinrich Schenker sought to revitalize Haydn as a new patriarch in a nationalist, reparative narrative of German music. As Bryan Proksch has shown, "Papa Haydn" was routinely dismissed by German critics and scholars throughout the 19th century; compared to Beethoven, Edouard Hanslick called him a "Klopstock", while A.B. Marx described him as "childlike.”[1] Yet as Proksch writes, Schenker sought to "turn the restoration of Haydn's stature as a compositional genius into a crucial battle within his larger fight to reclaim Germany's cultural history in the wake of the First World War.”[2]

Where Prager praises Haydn’s “genius” as a result of hard work—avoiding a discussion of the political, social, and economic histories of his identity—Schenker is much more explicit: Haydn, an ethnic German, was part of an “aristocracy of genius” that was given to German men by God.[3] Though Prager would of course disavow a link between his characterization of Haydn and Schenker’s proto-fascist ideology, the connection remains: Schenker links musical genius to the German race, while Prager links musical genius to a monolithic “Western” culture that is implicitly patriarchal, heteronormative, and white. The very notion of the “genius” of Haydn, for Schenker, was contingent on Haydn’s identity: in 1921, Schenker began the first issue of his music periodical Die Tonwille with an opening editorial entitled Von der Sendung der deutschen Genies ["The Mission of German Genius"], which claims "a Kant or Goethe, a Haydn or Mozart or Beethoven could work and breathe only in Germany.”[4] Schenker’s ethno-nationalist fantasy envisions a future in which “Papa Haydn” would be finally recognized as an ethnic German patriarch: “adapting Goethe's words, I issue a call: The fathers are the True! On to the fathers, to Father Haydn!"[5]

On August 17th, a day after the concert and four days after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, the board of the American Musicological Society issued a statement strongly condemning "neo-nazis, white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan members, white nationalists, and fascists". In their statement, they assert that they "seek to foster a safe and supportive community for all of our members and guests at all times and in all places", and that they "support the equal rights of all persons to a life free of violence and hatred, including the rights of those from all races and ethnicities, gender and sexual orientations, religions, national origins, and abilities." As scholars, we must think seriously and carefully about what we mean when we talk about "classical music"--and how to remain vigilant against the promotion of "Western Art Music" in the name of "Western supremacy" built on hatred, fear, and bigotry.

Ted Gordon is a PhD Candidate in the History and Theory of Music at the University of Chicago. His research connects music, technology, desire, and politics. His dissertation project examines experimental musical communities in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s and their relationship to larger trends in American technoscience.

[1] Bryan Proksch. "“Forward to Haydn!”: Schenker's Politics and the German Revival of Haydn." Journal of the American Musicological Society 64, no. 2 (2011): 320
[2] Ibid.
[3] Suzannah Clark. "The Politics of the Urlinie in Schenker's Der Tonwille and Der freie Satz." Journal of the Royal Musical Association 132, no. 1 (2007): 143
[4] Heinrich Schenker. "Von der Sendung des deutschen Genies," [trans. Bent as "The Mission of German Genius"]. In Der Tonwille 1 (1921), 4.
[5] Heinrich Schenker. "Haydn: Sonate Es-Dur" [Trans. Snarrenberg as "Haydn's Sonata in E Major, Hoboken XVI:52” In Der Tonwille 3 (1922), 3–21. More info here: http://www.schenkerdocumentsonline.org/profiles/work/entity-001742.html


  1. Thanks for this eye-opening and disturbing post, Ted. The idea that art can be "apolitical" is as naive as it is (clearly, in this case) insidious.

  2. The author does a poor job representing Mr. Prager's worldview. Mr. Prager is Jewish and his politics are an outgrowth of his engagement with Judaism and theology in general. He hosted a radio program about religion and Judaism for many years. This is central to his outlook but not even mentioned, making Mr. Prager seem like an alt-right pundit.

    It was particularly striking that the author claimed that Prager's ideas mirror ethno-nationalist views that endorse "whiteness", without addressing at all the fact that most white nationalists would reject the Judaism from Judeo-Christian traditions. Does the author know that Prager is Jewish, or simply omitted that fact in order to make him seem more similar to German ethno-nationalists?

    Also, the author claims that Prager "scorns" atheists, but then discusses his project with Adam Carolla, who is an avowed atheist.

    It seems that the author did a really lazy job researching his subject, or simply choose to omit important information that complicates the argument.

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  4. There is so much wrong with this article that I don’t even know where to begin. Perhaps with a bit of gratitude…THANK YOU Ted Gordon for introducing me to the ideas of Dennis Prager, who I’d never read prior to clicking the links in your article [those that work; several lead to pages that “can’t be found”]. I find I like his thinking very much, and I find your interpretations of his arguments to be undermined by reading those arguments for myself.

    Briefly, to my reading he writes with respect for all human beings (except perhaps for heinous criminals such as terrorists). In the article you link to the term “Muslim faith”, he does not condemn Muslims but rather only those who commit terrorism in the name of Islam —in fact, your characterization that he argues “western culture is under attack by…the Muslim faith” is a grossly unfair interpretation of the article you link in support of your statement. In the article you link to the term “same-sex marriage,” he does not condemn gays but rather only argues that same-sex marriage is a radical departure from all history of marriage for all known societies.

    Mr. Prager rightly calls today’s college campuses places of cowardice and illiberal contempt for free speech, a perception I have also sadly come to after watching how students become self-anointed moral police who shout down and shut down (and worse) speakers (and audience) who come to their campus with ideas they disagree with, and watching how cowardly administrators and professors allow it. And I am no fan of Ann Coulter, but is disgraceful that UC Berkeley cancelled her appearance because it refused to stand up to riotous students. And I’ve seen many similar disgraceful illiberal shutdowns of speech and intimidation of speakers by left-wing students in the past few years, including locally (for me) at Yale University.

    And why is the word “genius” in quotes, implying Maestro Haydn —the father of the symphony and of the string quartet, the masterful composer of great Masses and diverse chamber works— was not one of the greatest composers in Western civilization? And why the digression into political ideas of Carl Schenker, who died in 1935 and whose writings were banned by the NAZIs, as if your summary of his politics (which I distrust, based on your terrible misrepresentations of Mr. Prager) proves that admiration for Haydn’s music is some kind of disguised racism, sexism, etc? My son takes music theory lessons from a teacher who has many times explained to us he was trained in Schenkerian analysis, and never once have we ever had a political discussion, but always about how music (tonality, harmony and melody) are working in a particular piece at hand.

    I could go on but I am a very busy full-time laborer, single-father (and atheist Catholic) who has better things to do than further elaborate my objections to this article and the majority of articles I read at this website, most of which are much more focused on politics (and virtually always with the same slant that seems to despise the musical traditions of Western civilization, and our history generally). Not to mention there are much better musicology blogs where the focus is actually on music rather than on the (misrepresented) politics of musicians.

    1. Heinrich Schenker's racism, sexism, and elitism were not disguised, but proudly proclaimed. He argued at great length in both his periodicals and his theoretical works that there was a natural order of things in which men should rule over women, German speakers were better than other races and nationalities, and that the individual genius should concede nothing to the empty animalistic tastes of the masses. He also (in the immediate postwar period) was outrageously contemptuous of the United States (Rockefeller and Woodrow Wilson came in for particular scorn).

    2. Thank you Professor Fink, for the discussion. PART ONE

      To begin my reply, surely you know I did NOT say that Mr. Schenker’s political ideas were disguised. I have enjoyed some of your academic articles enough to know you are highly literate, so you could not have missed the meaning of my words when I criticized Mr. Gordon’s article for “the digression into the political ideas of Carl Schenker…as if your [Gordon’s] summary of his [Schenker’s] politics (which I distrust, based on your [Gordon’s] terrible misrepresentations of Mr. Prager) proves that admiration for Haydn’s music is some kind of disguised racism, sexism, etc.”

      I object to Mr. Gordon’s invoking the political ideas of Heinrich Schenker as some sort of ad-hominem-by-association accusation that Haydn’s music represents the political ideas of Heinrich Schenker…or of Dennis Prager for that matter. Whatever Schenker or Prager or anybody else has ever said about Haydn’s music, that is not what Haydn’s music meant to Haydn, nor to most of us who over the past 200+ years have loved his work.I've already said I also disagree with Mr. Gordon's summary and interpretation of the thinking of both men, but that is besides the point. Even if I agreed with those summaries, to me it would still be irrelevant to valuating the music of Haydn.

      The life and thought of Walter Dahms is a salient example of how a disciple of Schenker’s musical ideas who broke with his political thinking, thus showing it is quite possible even for someone completely intimate with Schenker’s thought to separate politics from music. And again, Schenker’s thought was not Haydn’s, though my argument is really that the political or social thought of an artist need not be part of our valuation of their work, which after all is an aesthetic object, especially as the winds of change over time obliterate whatever original context and immediate meaning might have originally been expressed.

      I object to nutshell summaries of an artist’s thought or life being used in our very different time and place to undermine the greatness of their work and to impinge the character of we who today still love that work. In the Introduction to his book “Becoming Heinrich Schenker: Music Theory and Ideology,” Robert Morgan describes Schenker as a man of his times (and place): “…someone with a wide range of intellectual interests, unattached to any single influence. A thinker embracing a broad sphere of concerns, some conscious and others not, he held ideological views that were also commonly held by a number of non-musical thinkers of his time.”

    3. Thank you Professor Fink, for the discussion. PART TWO

      I distrust Mr. Gordon’s summary of Schenker’s politics (and now of yours) because, even if the few phrases you write are either literally true or at least can be argued as valid interpretations, it is very ahistorical to apply the standards of our own time and place to condemn the thinking of someone from a different time and place. Taking things out of context is a way to be literally true yet very false on the higher level of historical appreciation. That’s why a good biography is about “the life AND TIMES of” the person of interest. Do we reject the music of great renaissance composers if they supported the monarchy of their day? Do we reject the work of Bach if we are an atheist? Should our art made today someday be rejected when the dominant ideology has changed to see us as wicked barbarians for eating animals and burning fossil fuels and using electronic devices manufactured in ways that destroy the ecosystem and exploit foreign labor?

      Personally, I don’t even want to know about the politics or lifestyle of living artists, which I consider to be irrelevant to judging the aesthetic quality of their work. Its not that different from saying I don’t care about the politics of my doctor or my mechanic either. The work stands or falls on its own merits, not on a political or moral test of the creator.

      As I argued in my reply below to Ms. Noble, genuine artistic genius creates work that has such aesthetic quality that it moves us in other times and places when the circumstances of the creation have morphed beyond dust…but the work still stands because it has qualities that are universal or elemental enough to move us in our own very different circumstances and very different social understandings and concerns.

  5. Ted, your mind is addled with politic-speak, and your powers of reasoning are weak and frankly childish. Why don't you just cut to the chase Ted, and just dictate to us what's ok to play in the concert hall these days? What are we permitted to like without being accused of harboring racist sentiments? Just lay it all out, OK?

    1. At no point in this excellent blog post does Ted Gordon ever come close to "dictate to us what's ok to play in the concert hall these days." Gordon's issue is not with playing Haydn in the concert hall, or any composer, but rather the naive assumption that music can be apolitical.

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  7. I would like to affirm the unknown poster's summary of Ted Gordon's article-- specifically, that Gordon's point is to elucidate how music (or any other cultural platform for that matter) cannot be without politics. With that said, neither can any discussion of music's politics be without. . . politics. Gordon does not shroud his values in the faux "objectivity" pervasive in so much of journalism, which I find to be both ethical and refreshing. Not only does every musical work inevitably bear the watermarks of its initial context, but as a cultural text with a life independent of its author, it also accumulates layers of assigned meanings and interpretations over its years existing in public discourse. Music is thus, HEAVY with cultural-political implications, particularly since music must be (re)produced in order to continue to exist in culture (as opposed to artistic media which yield physical objects). An additional point I would like to make (though I don't wish to speak for Gordon) is that, by pointing out the latent politics found in the very notion of "apoliticism," Gordon also exposes the still-active "religion of art." What I mean by this term is the idea that art (especially music) allows us to escape the "messiness" of the world and grants entry into some sort of Platonic world of abstract perfection, a concept popularized at the turn of the twentieth century by John Dewey and many of the American Transcendentalists involved in education reforms. According to theorists who have examined this phenomenon-- such as Walter Benjamin and Clement Greenberg-- art stepped in to the vacuum left by religion's displacement in the rapidly-modernizing world. As a result, music/art acquired some of the dualistic medieval eschatology of spirituality (or "edification" as Dewey and his compatriots would have put it). Art-- especially music-- could be considered separate from lived experience, from the world, the body, and the "non-spiritual." The traces of this eschatology linger in popular notions such as "Mozart's music can make your baby smarter," or classical music is "universal," or art is "exempt from politics" because it is somehow separate/above it all. These notions have a rhizomatic relationship to medieval thought and Cartesian dualism, both of which lead many people-- religious and non-religious-- into complacency with hierarchies and systemic injustice. Music must be understood as culturally situated; furthermore, since performances are just as intrinsic to music's meaning as its original composition, performances must too be understood as expressive of the ideas belonging to its socio-cultural place as well as the individuals participating in its (re)production. When we undertake this task of analysis, understanding, and critical thought, we employ music as a tool for public discourse and social advancement. In summary, thanks Ted!

    1. Part 1

      Nice try, Charissa, and I especially appreciate your use of the word “rhizomatic,” which I had to look up and will delight to drop at my next cocktail party, as a term for the kind of thinking about culture that seems to despise tradition and any value in history, preferring a free-floating or even aimless wandering through time and space in order to escape the norms and customs of their society. It reminds me of what used to be called “existentialism,” though it has been decades since I lost all interest in “philosophy,” which as a father and working man I came to see as a waste of time and thought due to the demands and goals I have. Maybe I’m just someone who prefers the concrete to the abstract. And (to make a musical pun), on a related note, I beg your forgiveness now for my lack of references to previous thinkers in everything I am about to say. I’ve been out of academia for decades, and though I always have a few books “in-process”, in the end I think for myself and will assert all my ideas as my own, though I have no genius and admit everything I think is just my own re-arrangement of the ideas I’ve encountered from people who came before me.

      That said, I am still capable of “reflection,” and since I assume your sincerity and recognize you have put much thought into your position, how can I explain our disagreement? Is one of us “wrong” and the other “right”? Well I suppose that depends on one’s level of analysis, as I could answer “yes and no” and not be bothered by the seeming logical contradiction. That’s because contradictions can be true simultaneously, because the subjective realm is real in its own way, but of limited extant and existing beside other subjective realms that are very different.

    2. Part 2

      How are you “right”? In my opinion, people who are hyper-political find politics in EVERYthing. You and many of the writers at Musicology Now strike me as hyper-political people. Such a mentality (subjective realm) can write “music cannot be without politics” and “music…is HEAVY with cultural-political implications” (notice here the slipping out of asserting music is always narrowly literal politics by joining cultural to political, simultaneously softening the overt political while asserting that all culture is inherently political). I’m sure that, to your way of thinking, that is true. Thus I expect such hyper-political people will also find politics in the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the hairstyles they choose, the cars they drive (or refuse to drive), etc.

      I well know the hyper-political type because I once was one of them. In my university days, I quickly went from a non-political but (very) casual “Reagan Youth” (as a voter and as a topic of light conversation, but not deeply pondered because I didn’t much care about politics or history yet) to a highly politicized far-left radical, where I came to see power relationships in EVERYthing. Another way to describe a certain strain of hyper-political people is IDEOLOGICAL, and I appreciate the comforts of ideology, where one adopts a mindset that seems comprehensive and consistent, easily assimilating (as opposed to the more disturbing and difficult mental act of accommodating) any social or historical or or intellectual or material phenomenon that comes to one’s attention. I realize this is NOT how someone who sees things “rhizomatically” would describe their own thinking, but such thinking has many of the same traits found in ideological thinking, especially in the sense that it perceives traditionalist (“conservative”) thought and behavior as rigid, as “complacency with hierarchies and systemic injustice,” etc. Over the decades my thinking has changed much as I read and considered and experienced a great diversity of ideas and settings and people, to the point now when I have quit politics and decided to become a musician, to abandon any hope of “changing society for the better” out of a sense of futility and political despair, but to find comfort in art and music, to find love and security in the people and community around me.

      I will allow you are “right” in the sense that, without the mental constructs, based on our values, our deepest impulses but also our most artificial (man-made) and learned (cerebral) categories of thought, everything is just particles, devoid of meaning and simply the expression of the original energy of the Big Bang applied to the properties of matter. So obviously as conscious beings with passions and desires and cares and need for meaning and sense, we must construct a mental model, imbued with whatever deep feelings enslave our minds, in order to “understand” our lives and find reason to persist in the struggle for survival. But let’s not therefore confuse that subjective realm with “absolute truth.” No, it is relative truth, and since a hyper-political thinking is “true” to you and many of the writers at Musicology Now (not to mention the millions of other hyper-political people), it is “true wherever that subjective realm is found. In other words, it is a valid way of interpreting the “facts”, albeit with the understanding that ANY interpretation of the facts requires applying one’s values to selection of which facts are important enough to be taken into account, and how they shall be fit together to make sense of the chaos of an infinite number of facts and extensions of events and causation that quickly expand beyond any human comprehension.

    3. Part 3

      How are you “wrong”? By virtue of the fact that that there are many other (and very different) subjective realms existing simultaneously to yours. Simply put, not everyone is political, and they are just as immersed in music as you are, and therefore there is a huge human terrain where music is about aesthetics, where culture is about identity and love of one’s parents and community devoid of any sense of struggle or competition with other group identities, or for power and “influence.” For many of us, music is just part of “who we are,” it is a source of joy, an expression of our feelings, and, contrary to your rejection of “the religion of art,” it is precisely that “Platonic” (though most wouldn’t phrase it as you did) realm of beauty and order that escapes the “messiness of the world.” What is wrong with that? And however political everything might seem to you, you would have a more comprehensive understanding of the world if you would acknowledge that there are many people who do not find politics in music or art, or at least not inherent to all music and art.

      Tonight I took my son to our regular Wednesday night church choir practice. NEVER have I hear even one political sentence from anybody at that choir, nor at the community choir where we also sing. These people gather for the aesthetics of the music, we feel good singing, both finding the notes and hearing the harmonies, and in the community of singing with others who love choral music. And how can classical music be inherently political if I’ve loved it since before I even thought about politics, and continued to love it through all the huge changes in my “political” (ie, historical and social) thinking?

      To give just one random but perfect example of how seeing music as inherently political is an ideological view that very much prevents a true understanding of why people make music, consider this article that I read today as the top article on the website violinist.com:


      The writer is an Australian cellist who wandered around his country for 30 days, playing Bach’s Cello Suites in a diverse variety of public places, often spontaneously, like a street musician or troubadour. He compares his journey to the Aboriginal “Walkabout” of their traditional culture, and he delights in how much joy and healing he shared, especially in dance workshops for people with Parkinson’s disease. Are you going to say this was a political act? That some sort of power relationship was inherent to it? That some sort of “accumulated layers of assigned meanings and interpretations…HEAVY with cultural-political implications,” were being projected by this man’s tour of Australia playing the Bach Suites? Certainly I don’t see it that way, and I doubt he did either. What “watermarks of its initial context” are at play here?

    4. Part 4

      That “watermarks” phrase of yours was beautifully poetic, but in this argument I think it can only pass in the slippery guise of metaphor, since works of genuine artistic genius stand the test of time precisely because they have a deep aesthetic quality that is, if not “universal” then at least elemental and “eternal” in the sense that the work can still move us even over great distances of place and time, when whatever original social and historical context are to us nothing but dust, yet the work itself still moves us, still excites passions and awe. This is indeed how great art transports us to a sublime realm where circumstance and anything too (or at least, only) literal is left behind, even forgotten and escaped. To make my point, even great propaganda art such as a revolutionary (or reactionary) poster has aesthetic value for me only to the extent that, as the event and controversy and eventually even the civilization that produced it, dissipate in time's winds of change, yet still standing in the work would be some feeling and sensibility that carries such universality or at least spiritual depth that the work can still strike a chord in a person contemplating it in what may be very different circumstances and cultural assumptions.


    5. Will, thanks for taking up the challenge of refuting the assertion that "music cannot be without politics".

      I have read the exchange of thought in your dialogue with the author of the original post and the commentators with Joan Pires' recording of Chopin's Nocturnes playing in the background. I would swear that the only politics in the room was to be found on my computer screen. No matter how hard I tried, I could not find any in the genius of the piano compositions I heard, or the performance. Should I have delved into the piano manufacturer, the record label (DG), the music retailer or the liner note author to have found some politics to make my listening experience complete?

  8. Ted, I think your article is itself an excellent example of "kettle logic." And everything you say about Haydn boils down to guilt by association.