Monday, December 29, 2008

Regarding Hanns Eisler

Leon Botstein, conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and a first rate musical scholar (and president of Bard College) discusses East German music, politics and culture in a video, "Music of the Other Germany: Five Composers Writing Under the Banner of East Germany. One can learn of the ethos within which composers such as Hanns Eisler and Paul Dessau worked. You'll learn quite a lot from Botstein's rich discussion. I should add that Eisler had been in the US during W.W. II where he co-authored a famed book on music for film with the philosopher/musician Theodore Adorno. Eisler was brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948 for his political beliefs, and received much support from his friends, including Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and the playwright and film script writer Clifford Odets, but to no avail: he was deported from the US. Like his colleague Bertold Brecht, who left the US before he could be deported, Eisler decided to live in East Germany, and spent the remainder of his very productive life in that country. He died in 1962. Both he and Dessau composed music with texts by Brecht. Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra will be concertizing at Lincoln Center on Sun. Jan. 25, 2009, at 3:00 pm, and will be devoting this summer's program at Bard to these composers.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

On Blogging

I read with some fascination Andrew Sullivan's article in the November 2008 Atlantic, "Why I Blog." Among the many interesting things he's got to say is that the blogger is more free with his/her thoughts than the writer whose work appears in paper format. The blog is more a record of the momentary, the ephemeral, the happenstance, of one's reactions to the event in virtual real time. Moreover, the blog creates the possibility of an immediate conversation with the reader. But unlike paper publications, there is also the chance of that conversation deteriorating into the low-level vituperative. The probability of this latter possibility appearing on this blog will remain low to zero. Nevertheless that's the risk one takes in the blogospheric medium.

For example, if I claim that Leonard Bernstein's Colombia/Sony recording of Mahler's Third is the greatest, someone else may answer, "Oh Yeah? Sez who?!" But if I support my claim by pointing out that in the last movement it is Bernstein's symphonic forces who rise to the highest emotional peak, then anyone who might otherwise argue against my position will be forced to listen to this recording. My opponent will now have to point to his/her candidate recording, to which I will now be forced to listen. The conversation becomes reasoned discourse. Not only that, but in a short while the conversation will turn from "best" to what is a far more interesting question, for example, whether Mahler intended the kind of wrenching emotional response that Bernstein elicits, or the cooler approach of, for example, Pierre Boulez. And that discussion will hopefully give way to another, say, why audiences at any particular time will opt for the emotional, and why audiences at other times opt for the cooler approach. I have my theories about this last question; I'll devote a future post to what think.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Individual Autonomy, Artistic Expression and Social Context

Are artists autonomous or are they responding, consciously or not, to prevailing social, political and economic forces? The critic Jed Perl's answer, which he argues in his essay, "Private Lives," in the December 4, 2008 New Republic is that "Art ... represents the triumph of private feeling over public pressures, or at least the ability of private feeling to assert itself in the face of public pressures and public values." He goes on to argue that his position seems to fly in the face of much current critical opinion, which holds that cultural expression is inevitably conditioned by the artist's location within the social order and response to it; and by the expectations and needs of the artist's audience. Perl responds: "It is true that there is no artist who has ever stood entirely apart from his or her time. But whatever the complexities of the artist's shifting social and economic situation, the artistic act is also an individualistic impulse rooted in the sense of self that is at the heart of the human condition."

Perl is thus arguing that no individual is reducible to a mindless cipher, that in the end we are always making choices, be these aesthetic or ethical. Any two people living within the same if not identical social conditions may make radically distinct choices, develop radically distinct programs and plans. As Sartre said of the poet Paul Valery, Valery was a petit bourgeois, but not every petit bourgeois is a Paul Valery. But even a Paul Valery was working under certain conditions, stylistic conventions, a given technology, world views and ideological horizons.

Can we then formulate how individual autonomy and social conditions intersect? This is the kind of question we will be posing, and working at, as these posts continue.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Alex Ross and "The Legend of Lenny"

The December 15, 2008 edition of The New Yorker carries a piece by Alex Ross, "The Legend of Lenny," that reminds us of the multifarious ways in which Bernstein contributed to the enrichment of the American public sphere.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Bernstein's "Truth in a Time of War"

Leonard Bernstein was a morally serious and politically savvy man. His 1986 speech, "Truth in a Time of War," was recently published in the American Scholar with introduction by Harvard musicologist Carol J. Oja and Library of Congress Bernstein Collection archivist Mark E. Horowitz. The speech shows Bernstein at his prescient best.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Re: Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician

In my book, Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician, I write that:

From his dazzling conducting debut in 1943 until his death in 1990, Leonard Bernstein's star blazed brilliantly. In this fresh and revealing biography of Bernstein's political life, Barry Seldes examines Bernstein's career against the backdrop of cold war America—blacklisting by the State Department in 1950, voluntary exile from the New York Philharmonic in 1951 for fear that he might be blacklisted, signing a humiliating affidavit to regain his passport—and the factors that by the mid-1950s allowed his triumphant return to the New York Philharmonic. Seldes for the first time links Bernstein's great concert-hall and musical-theatrical achievements and his real and perceived artistic setbacks to his involvement with progressive political causes. Making extensive use of previously untapped FBI files as well as overlooked materials in the Library of Congress's Bernstein archive, Seldes illuminates the ways in which Bernstein's career intersected with the twentieth century's most momentous events. This broadly accessible and impressively documented account of the celebrity-maestro's life deepens our understanding of an entire era as it reveals important and often ignored intersections of American culture and political power.

Click here to link to my book at University of California Press.

Welcome to my Blog

Hello there!

My name is Barry Seldes. Welcome to my blog!

I'm most interested in how political power and social forces affect artistic and creative expression. To that end I've written a book, Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician, to be published by University of California Press in May, 2009.* I will be happy to engage with you, and/or moderate discussions, on issues raised in and/or about my book. However, I hope that we will comment on all kinds of cultural-political matters of importance. I look forward to interesting discussions and debates. I also invite you to post items that complement our forum.

*Click here to link to my book on Amazon. com.