Composing for the State: Music in 20th-century Dictatorships.
This collection of essays deals with, as is left in no doubt by its title, music and politics, but it does not do so in a narrow sense. Indeed, the overarching impression left by reading it is of tremendous breadth, both of approach and of understanding. As the editors point out in their introduction, "The study of artistic production under dictatorships is a relatively recent phenomenon, especially in relation to music. The novelty of the approach derives from the combination of historical evidence and the living memory of these regimes, whose transformation has by no means ceased with the beginning of the twenty-first century" (p. 3). Indeed, discussion of this topic cannot be done in black and white. Rather, it demands a method that is aware both of the frailty of artists and their frequent willingness to be manipulated (or at least complicit) and of the resonances of the legacy of the dictatorial regimes under discussion to the present day.
The obvious way to deal with such a vast topic is by a series of case studies, and by the time one has read through to the end of the book, the benefits of this approach are clear, not least in the way the similarities and differences between the cases discussed rise to the fore. The book is therefore divided into three sections: "Music for the People," "Composing for the Dictator," and "State Commemorations." The first of these begins with a chapter by Yannick Simon that deals with the role of music under the Vichy regime, in particular the employment of the story of Joan of Arc as part of the activities of the very short-lived arts association Jeune France. "Eleven composers were involved in these projects," writes Simon, "including the most important names of the period. The corpus raises the question of musical aesthetic continuity in the context of war and an undemocratic political regime. All the evidence suggests that the sound palette of French composers generally shrank in the aftermath of the defeat" (pp. 2829). This narrative of failure is not the only aspect of the story, of course, as Simon recognizes, but it is indicative of the kinds of consequences of politically driven aesthetics.
Those consequences in the case of Heitor Villa Lobos are analyzed by Analia Chernavsky, who deals specifically with the Darifa da terra (1943) created for the celebrations of the fatherland held under the regime of Getulio Vargas, placing the composer's willingness to collaborate in the promotion of this era as a "time of redemption" beyond any doubt (p. 48). While these kinds of activity were widespread as promotional tools for authoritarian regimes, China's engagement with the arts was on a massive scale, as recent research has increasingly shown. HonLung Yan's chapter deals with the The East Is Red, a "song and dance epic" (p. 52), or what the author calls "a showcase of socialist grandiosity" (p. 53). Yan provides a detailed context that is essential for interested Western readers to understand how such mammoth displays of apparently anonymous collective work could come about, and she clarifies that this particular show was in fact an initiative of Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier, in 1964.
In the second section of the book is a fascinating discussion, by Katherine L. FitzGibbon, of the Deutsches Helden-requiem (1934) by Gottfried Muller (1914-1993). Muller was a favorite of the Nazi regime, and Adolf Hitler exempted him from military service so that his life would not be endangered; his most notorious work is Fuhrerworte (1944) for choir and orchestra, set to words by Hitler. The Requiem is a similarly monumental work, attempting a kind of heroic historical background for the regime in a style suggestive of German music of the past, notably that by Johannes Brahms and Max Reger. Alfredo Casella's opera Il deserto tentato (1937) is the object of a study by Justine Comtois. This work, which was dedicated "to Benito Mussolini, the creator of the Empire" (p. 84), was part of Casella's renewed interest in opera after having concentrated on instrumental works in the wake of his rejection of verismo. While Casella's monumentalizing tendencies fitted with the aspirations of the regime, the public was not convinced: "the audience was expecting Aida at the Verona arena and had to content itself with the modern 'Indes Galantes'; it was a major disappointment" (p. 91).
Stalin was the dedicatee of Dmitrii Shostakovich's Pesn' o lesakh (Song of the Forests; 1949), and Marina Frolova-Walker, in dissecting its complicated reception history, does not shy away from labeling it for what it is: "all attempts to 'save' the piece by dissociating it from Stalin are futile: Stalinism is not limited to a few removable words in the text, but pervades the music, the whole coauthored conception and, indeed, the chosen topic" (p. 118). Precisely: Shostakovich in particular has been the object of a kind of revisionism, or at least attempts to minimize his collaboration with the Soviet state and its ideology, but recent scholarship (not least of Frolova-Walker herself) has taken the bull by the horns and made it clear that the quality of the music is one thing, its political affiliations another. And this is, in fact, a lesson brought home time and time again in this collection of essays. Honesty concerning the ideological origins and aims of a musical work does not preclude appreciation of it as a purely musical phenomenon. Indeed, Andrzej Tuchowski's chapter, dealing with Stalinism in Poland, and centering around a detailed analysis of Alfred Gradstein's A Word about Stalin (1951), ends with a quotation from one of the musicians who performed in its premiere: "if 'one was deaf to the text, the music alone could really be enjoyed' " (p. 141).
The final section of the book opens with a chapter by Manuel Deniz Silva discussing the Solemn Overture 1640 by Luis de Freitas Branco (1939). This overture has caused some discomfort among commentators on the composer's work, commissioned as it was specifically to celebrate the Salazarist vision of Portugal's history, a "double centenary" to be held in 1940, commemorating the founding of the state in 1140 and the restoration of independence in 1640 (p. 144). Silva convincingly shows how it in fact fits into the composer's own agenda and his view of Portuguese music history, while certainly not minimizing the ambiguity of the enterprise. Over the border, the Concierto de la Paz in 1964 was a celebration of twenty-five years of Francisco Franco's regime. Igor Contreras Zubillaga contributes a fascinating chapter dealing with the planning and organization of this event, and the reactions to it, which include the "apolitical" works composed by Cristobal Halffter and Luis de Pablo. The final chapter, by Esteban Buch, deals with Alberto Ginastera's Iubilum (1980), a work commissioned in celebration of the Fourth Centenary of the Second Founding of Buenos Aires. Buch convincingly argues for a view of Ginastera's work that is much more nuanced than that of merely an endorsement of the colonialist Hispanist narrative and, in keeping with the general tone of the book, makes the reader want to hear the work (it has been rarely performed) in order to evaluate its purely musical quality.
Use could have been made of a general English-language editor--there are too many examples of "translationese" ("folkloric" for "folk," "re-edited" for "republished," "ancient music" for "early music," and so on)--but this should not deter the reader from what is an eminently readable collection dealing with themes that have come increasingly to the fore over recent decades and whose very ambiguity enrich our understanding of the music discussed here and its historical and cultural contexts.
Universidade Nova, Lisbon
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2018|
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