Sunday, January 18, 2009

Emotional or Cooler Mahler?

In an earlier posting I raised the question of why in some periods audiences and other listeners will prefer a more emotional performance of a Mahler symphony, say, by Bernstein, and why at other times a cooler variety, say by Boulez, takes preference.

I once conducted a poll on the Mahler List as to why the Mahler boom had occurred, and the majority of respondents, I think maybe 20 people, said it was the advent of the LP and the new high fidelity and stereo sound systems. But the advent of the new technology would not fully suffice, because then any composer whose works appeared on LP and were playable on a terrific stereo system should have had his/her boom as well. No, something more than technology was behind the sudden popularity of Mahler. I think that in the decades of the 60s and the 70s, the emotional interpretation caught the imagination of a listening audience for whom the horrific tragedies wrought by the Nazis during WW II had immediacy, a people desperate to find expression for the traumas of mass murder, genocide, and the crushing of European humanism. The Mahler boom took off because, Mahler, even though he died in 1911, was victimized by anti-Semitism and could represent in music the victimization of millions during the European catastrophe. For Bernstein, Mahler's music in toto became a vast musical work in which the Knabenwunderhorn songs, the Wayfarer Songs, the symphonies, the Ruckert Lieder and the Kindertotenlieder, and Das Lied von der Erde, especially Der Abschied, all form a great work, at once, Mahler’s autobiography, at once, European Jewry's Great Memorial and Requiem, at once, a 20th century European tragedy. I think this is what drew so much attention in the 60s and 70s. What compelled audiences in those decades was the great emotional, tragic power that was realized by Bernstein and by Walter, Mahler’’s protégé, and others, among them Haitink, who, conducting the (as it was known then) Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra in its great concert hall, provided the Dutch with their own historic references to a great pre-war Mahler tradition and their own memorial to their horrors under the Nazi occupation.

Now as to Boulez: As time went on, the generations that had sought and attended this Mahlerian musical tragedy had perhaps exhausted their own needs for powerful cathartic release. Mahler's music had been long enjoying its high place in the canon, and audiences, older as well as younger members, were seeking new ways to enjoy Mahler. And so the less emotional, cooler Boulez and similar interpreters.

To conclude: Bernstein was a great tragedian who realized the tragic powers so manifest within Mahler's music. Boulez and the cooler approach satisfies others who for whatever reasons have less investment in the historical, tragic Mahler.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hanns Eisler and the FBI

Apropos of the posting regarding Hanns Eisler, there is a very fine article by Jame Wierzbicki, "Hanns Eisler and the FBI," in the latest edition of the on-line journal, Music and Politics.

This issues contens include:

  • Michael Beckerman, “The Dark Blue Exile of Jaroslav Ježek“
  • Jame Wierzbicki, “Hanns Eisler and the FBI“
  • Brana Mijatovic, “’Throwing Stones at the System’: 
Rock Music in Serbia during the 1990s“ 

  • Damien Sagrillo, translated by Lee Rothfarb, “The Notion of Humankind According to the Music-pedagogical Conception of Former Socialist States, Exemplified in the Former German Democratic Republic“
  • Dard Neuman, “Music & Politics in the Classroom:
 Music, Politics and Protest
  • Eunice Schroeder, ”Recent Books on Music and Politics”
Regarding this journal, the editors write:

Music and Politics welcomes submissions of any length that explore the
interaction of Music and Politics. Areas of interest include, but are
not limited to, the impact of politics on the lives of musicians,
music as a form of political discourse, and the influences of ideology
on musical historiography. In addition, we seek articles that examine
pedagogical issues and strategies pertaining to the study of Music and
Politics in the undergraduate classroom. We also welcome suggestions
and/or submissions of articles on Music and Politics that have already
been published in another language and that would benefit from
dissemination in English translation. Submissions are encouraged from
both established scholars and graduate students. Because Music and
Politics is an on-line journal, authors are welcome to take advantage
of the media capabilities of the web (sound files, hyperlinks, color
images, and video).

Friday, January 2, 2009

Alex Ross versus Tom Wolfe on Bernstein

In his December 15 New Yorker article, “The Legend of Lenny” (cited and linked in a posting below), Alex Ross criticized Tom Wolfe’s 1973 "Radical Chic" characterization of Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia as socialites patronizingly dabbling in the civil rights movement. (The occasion was a party held by Felicia Bernstein to support the Black Panthers’ defense fund.) Ross goes on to write about the FBI’s criminal Counter Intelligence Program attempt to exploit the issue and destroy Bernstein and his wife Felicia’s reputation. In a letter published in the January 5, 2009 New Yorker, Re: The Legend of Lenny , Wolfe responds to Ross by reiterating his claim that the episode was “hysterically funny.” Ross in reply writes that “A ‘sensitive reassessment’ is needed not least because of the damage that ‘Radical Chic’ did to Bernstein’s image.”

Ross is indeed right: Bernstein was terribly hurt by Wolfe’s mean-spirited attack and the subsequent FBI harassment, and right in calling for a reassessment of Bernstein’s record and beliefs. Such a reassessment will be helped by my forthcoming book, which documents Bernstein’s activities in support of the civil rights of black Americans that were underway back in the 1940s, when such activities could fill one’s FBI dossier – which is exactly what happened in Bernstein’s case. Nor were those activities the end of Bernstein’s engagement with the civil rights movement. In 1965, he traveled to Montgomery, Alabama to greet those who had marched from Selma to Montgomery, knowing full well that that he could have been in the cross hairs of a Klansman’s rifle telescope sight. Nor were his activities extra-mural: one should pay some attention to Bernstein’s 1977 “Songfest” where he sets music to, among others, Langston Hughes’ “I Too, Sing America” and June Jordon’s “Okay, ‘Negroes” -- both angry statements about racial discrimination. Nor does the record stop there. Bernstein was outspoken in support of civil rights in the 1988 election when, it will be remembered, the Republicans were running their racist "Willy Horton" television ad and attacking American liberalism. Bernstein's defense of the liberal record on civil rights was, and remains, stirring.

In short, Bernstein was no dabbler: he was committed to the protection and advancement of civil rights and civil liberties all his life.