Financial Times, Weekend, March 30-31, 1996
|Peter Aspden: Purists Strike Wrong Note||History Home|
|You come to the end of a tiring day; you slide into the seat of your four-door saloon; you pull out straight into a row of belching traffic; you know your journey is going to last twice as long as it should. Only one thing separates you from a serious on set of road rage: in-car entertainment. You are a cultured sort of person, so you don't have any Snoop Doggy Dogg handy, besides which it would probably put you in the wrong mood.
You need something soothing, becalming; something to transcend the banality of these everyday irritations. There is Mozart, of course. Perhaps the thrilling trill of Cecilia Bartoli, or the playful doodles of an early sonata. Or something more substant ial? How about the slow movement of a Mahler symphony? Sweeping strings (what a good investment those door-mounted speakers were), incandescent playing (it says on the sleeve), relaxing. You need to relax.
But wait, somewone is tapping at your window. A flat tyre? No, he is signalling that your entire approach to music is superficial. You cannot listen to a short piece of Mahler in isolation, out of its proper context. The car behind is flashing its lig hts too. You've forgotten the opening two movements. You can only make sense of the adagio if you have lived through the playful humour and poignant rustic allusions of what preceded it. Mahler did not compose for your in-car entertainment. He wrote o f life and death. Give the man some respect.
To whom does a piece of music really belong? Is it the composer who has the right to artistic control at all times? The publisher, who represents the artist's interests after their death? The conductor? Claudio Abbado is at odds with the record company which has snipped his Mahler symphonies into bite-sized snacks. But don't we, as consumers, have the right to do what we will with our CD players?
We do; and that is the beauty of art. We all possess it and nobody can tell us we are wrong. A marvellous forthcoming study of Beethoven's music and its relationship with German politics illustrates some of the points raised by the Abbado case in the st arkest terms.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein conducted that moving performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Brandenburg Gate. What greater confluence could there have been than that between this hymn to brotherhood, the composer's "kiss t o the whole world", and the remarkable events of November 1989?
Except that others have not always seen it like that. Beethoven's symphonic music - heroic, inspiring, awesome in its ambition - has throughout history been fought over by those who wished to claim exclusive interpretative rights. To Wagner, it was quin tessentially German; to Nietzsche, Beethoven could not be constrained by national boundaries: he was the "European of the future".
In 1905, German socialists put on what they felt was the true premiere of the Ninth, as this was the first to be performed "by the workers, for the workers", thus fully realising the music's revolutionary potential. But come the Weimar years and it was t he turn of the right, describing in Der Tag how Beethoven would surely have admired Mussolini as he had Napoleon. Little wonder that Hitler commissioned experts to investigate - and refute - suggestions that the composer was racially impure. All over a few pieces of music.
Fast forward to the 1970s and the Ninth makes another appearance, this time as the inspiration of Stanley Kubrick's marauding "droogs" in A Clockwork Orange. Can anyone who has seen the film listen innocently to this masterpiece of high culture without t hinking of Kubrick's monstrous images?
That is our problem. Once music, any music, is released into the stratosphere, it floats freely. It can remain there, for a while, unsullied by the pettiness of human conflict; it can be ambushed by those who enlist its aid in self-aggrandisement; it ca n be slapped on, programmed and edited into ersatz chunks of easy listening. Music needs no other context than the one in which it is played. If that should happen to be a fume-filled rush hour on the North Circular, so be it.
_Beethoven in German Politics, 1870-1989_, David B. Dennis, L20, Yale University Press
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