Marxism and music

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Nov 7 09:33:04 MST 2003

In the 3rd Person : November 2003
Making Marx in the Music: A HyperHistory of New Music and Politics

By Kyle Gann
© 2003 NewMusicBox

"There is no such thing as Art for Art's sake, art that stands above 
classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics."

—Mao Tse-tung

Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and I have something in common: we're 
both ashamed to share our home state with George W. Bush. But she's 
gotten a lot more attention for having said so. After she dissed the 
President to a concert audience in London, she and the other Chicks 
received obscene phone calls, threatening drive-bys, bomb threats, and 
had their songs blacklisted off of hundreds of radio stations, many of 
them owned by the right wing-connected Clear Channel Corporation. 
Meanwhile, John Mellencamp revved up an old 1903 protest song called "To 
Washington," refitted it with new 2003 lyrics, and released it 
provocatively just as the troops were headed for Baghdad:

A new man in the White House
With a familiar name
Said he had some fresh ideas
But it's worse now since he came
 From Texas to Washington
He wants to fight with many
And he says it's not for oil
He sent out the National Guard
To police the world
 From Baghdad to Washington

For that, hundreds of radio listeners called in and said things like, "I 
don't know who I hate worse, Osama bin Laden or John Mellencamp."

No one can doubt that music has a big role to play in the world of 
political protest. The controversial musicians we read about in the 
papers, though, are mostly from the pop and folk genres. It's not only 
that those musicians are more visible, though that's certainly true as 
well. Classical music and jazz seem to have a more long-term, measured, 
even sublimated approach to political protest, slower to react and more 
deeply embedded in the structure of the music itself. When John 
Mellencamp writes a political song, he can use the same old chords and 
instruments he always uses; political classical composers often feel 
that the political intention entails a special style and strategy. When 
Billy Bragg is infuriated by an item in the paper, he can fire off a 
song that day:

Voices on the radio
Tell us that we're going to war
Those brave men and women in uniform
They want to know what they're fighting for
The generals want to hear the end game
The allies won't approve the plan
But the oil men in the White House
They just don't give a damn
'Cause it's all about the price of oil.

—"The Price of Oil" by Billy Bragg
The classical and jazz worlds, however, generally have a longer 
turnaround time.

Some composers see themselves playing to such a small audience that they 
see no point in writing political music, and often they compensate with 
more conventional types of political activism; Conlon Nancarrow, for 
instance, didn't believe in music's ability to portray anything 
extramusical, let alone political, but was nevertheless a sufficiently 
committed Communist to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Others feel, more 
obliquely and with little opportunity to gather concrete evidence, that 
through the nature of their music they can encourage perceptions that 
bring about greater awareness in the general population.

Most problematic of all, perhaps, is classical music's traditional 
relationship to established power and wealth. Rock guitarists and 
performance artists can challenge the status quo without subsidy, but 
the composer who gets performed by orchestra or chamber ensemble usually 
does so by the grace of either government grants or wealthy patrons or 
both. You can write a symphony subtitled "Death to the Corporate Ruling 
Class" if you want, but think twice about showing up for the orchestra 
trustee board meeting at which the commission is announced.

Consequently, political controversies involving classical music have 
been few and far between, and not always attributable to radical 
intentions on the part of the composers. The few highly visible cases 
are easy to enumerate. In 1953, Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait—and 
how can you get any more innocently American than Copland's narrated 
tone poem with Lincoln's words laced by folk song quotations like 
"Springfield Mountain" and "Camptown Races"—was abruptly canceled from 
performance at President Eisenhower's inaugural concert, because an 
Illinois congressman, Fred E. Busbey, had protested Copland's Communist 
connections of the 1930s. Copland had never actually been a Party 
member, but had written a prize-winning song for the Communist 
Composers' Collective, given musical lectures for Communist 
organizations, and appeared at the 1949 World Peace Conference to meet 
Shostakovich. Within months, Senator Joseph McCarthy called Copland to 
appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a fate that 
also eventually befell fellow composers Elie Siegmeister, Wallingford 
Riegger, David Diamond, and the German émigré Hanns Eisler, who was 
subsequently deported.

A similar situation recurred in 1973, when Vincent Persichetti's A 
Lincoln Address, also based on words of the Great Emancipator, was to be 
premiered as part of Richard Nixon's inauguration. Lincoln, however, had 
denounced "the mighty scourge of war," which threatened to look like a 
reflection on Nixon's pet venture, the Vietnam War. Persichetti was 
asked to make changes. He declined. The performance did not take place. 
Apparently the words of Abraham Lincoln are too inflammatory for today's 
politicians. More recently, John Adams and Alice Goodman had the 
choruses of their opera The Death of Klinghoffer canceled by the Boston 
Symphony in the wake of 9-11 for their arguably pro-Arab (or in Adams' 
view, even-handed) stance. The words of that opera, such as—

"My father's house was razed
In nineteen forty-eight
When the Israelis
Passed over our street"

—were to some listeners, it has been charged, "not a simple statement of 
fact, but rather provocation." Nevertheless, despite these isolated 
headline-grabbers, by and large—aside from the perennial attacks on 
Wagner's anti-Semitism that constitute a cottage industry—the world 
rarely takes classical music seriously enough to protest it.

As Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, the bourgeois epoch 
has simplified the structure of the world's class antagonisms into two 
camps: bourgeoisie and proletariat. (In recent years, the [s]election of 
former CEOs like Bush and Cheney has eroded even the slim, traditional 
distinction between politicians and the corporate class.) Virtually by 
definition, "political music" is understood as music that supports the 
interests of the working classes, and exposes the corporate/governing 
class as thieves and oppressors. As Christian Wolff—one of the central 
composers in this area—has pointed out, almost all composers called 
political are leftist: there have been virtually no composers whose 
music was explicitly associated with conservative causes, 
notwithstanding a number of patriotic symphonies and tone poems penned 
during World War II. In Marxist terms, composers who write for the 
delectation of the rich and for their fellow professionals are giving 
aid and comfort to the bourgeoisie, and are by definition 
counter-revolutionary, no matter what their conscious personal politics. 
Most non-pop music of the past century that we think of as political has 
come from a Marxist, communist, or socialist viewpoint—the composers who 
come to mind are Hanns Eisler, Marc Blitzstein, Frederic Rzewski, 
Cornelius Cardew, Christian Wolff, Luigi Nono. Even for composers who 
write from a feminist or gay or pro-Native American or Save the Whales 
viewpoint, Marxist conditions for political music tend to be assumed: 
simplicity, relation to some musical vernacular, non-elitist performance 



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