Second Thought – The politics of classical music
Posted on October 12, 2017 by Tia Lalani
Augustana music professor Alexander Carpenter on the intricacies of separating music from politics, informed by Dennis Prager’s recent appearance as a guest conductor at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
By Alexander Carpenter
The controversy surrounding a recent concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles raises the long-standing and difficult question of whether or not the politics of a musician, composer, or conductor should have any bearing on the experience of the music itself.
On August 16th, radio host and author Dennis Prager was a guest conductor at a fundraising concert for the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra at the Disney Hall. Prager is an outspoken conservative who enjoys an audience of millions, both over the airwaves and on YouTube through his PragerU video series. He is not a professional conductor. At best he is a mediocre amateur, a classical music aficionado for whom conducting is a hobby that is occasionally indulged. Prager was invited to conduct one obscure piece by Joseph Haydn with the Symphony and his invitation was clearly a financial-promotional choice and not a musical one.
This event quickly became a lightning rod for controversy. Ahead of the performance, several members of the orchestra indicated that they would not play under Prager’s baton, lest they lend legitimacy to his political positions. They also wrote an open letter to audience members, suggesting a boycott of the concert as a protest against what they called Prager’s “horribly bigoted” views on gay marriage, his support for Donald Trump, and his characterization of leftism as a “cancer” in American society. For his part, Prager insists that he has never used the conducting podium to express political points of view, and has derided the left for politicizing his appearance with the orchestra.
My point here is neither to defend Prager’s positions nor to support the activism of the musicians who protested the performance. Rather, I am interested what happens when classical music and politics mix, and specifically how we should listen—or if we should listen at all—to music made by those with political views we consider odious, or even simply dissonant with our own.
Those of us who study and love classical music must, for example, come to terms with the fact that some of the greatest German composers and conductors of the 20th century, such as Herbert von Karajan and Wilhelm Furtwängler, were morally compromised through their complicity with Nazism. They remained in Germany and continued to work and thrive under Hitler’s regime during the 30s and 40s even as their Jewish counterparts were being persecuted.
Similarly, how do we approach Richard Wagner, perhaps the greatest opera composer of the 19th century, but also a rabid anti-Semite and favourite composer of Hitler? Because of its distasteful ideological associations and the composer’s personal views, Wagner’s music—among the most sublime dramatic music ever written—is, for some, inseparable from its connections to Nazism. Indeed, Wagner cannot be performed in Israel to this day.
For some, then, the music of composers like Wagner carries with it unwholesome political baggage and listening and enjoyment requires a certain amount of internal negotiation, to separate the art from the man, and the art from the politics. For others, music simply stands alone as that most romantic and transcendent art, and as such is largely distant from ideology and the personal foibles of artists.
Perhaps the case of Wagner could inform us about the situation with Dennis Prager? I am not suggesting that Prager is like Wagner. But, as Alex Ross, music critic at the New Yorker has argued, these days we find ourselves having lost the ability to engage with ideologically compromised composers like Wagner with what Ross identifies as the “glorious interpretive confusion” that pre-dated the Nazis. Now, he insists, we are condemned to hear Wagner one-dimensionally, “through Hitler’s ears.” Do we condemn ourselves to a similar fate when we too readily and easily conflate the political views of a Dennis Prager with the music that he happens to support? Where is the suppleness of our minds and ears, that we cannot separate Prager the right-wing political pundit from Prager the advocate of classical music, or indeed, from the music itself?
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