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Updated: June 16, 2014 21:30 IST

Music in the time of totalitarianism

Shoumojit Banerjee
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Music and the Spiritual Composers and Politics in the 20th Century Author: Antony Copley
Music and the Spiritual Composers and Politics in the 20th Century Author: Antony Copley

The engagement between Western Classical music and public life in the tumultuous 20 century has been given a definite rendering in musicologist Richard Taruskin’s classic six-volume Oxford History of Western Music .

More recently, Alex Ross’ highly original, demotic masterwork, The Rest is Noise (2007) has made 20 century Western classical music even more accessible to the less musically-literate public. The two above mentioned opuses, rich cultural feasts both, have firmly grounded Western classical music in its socio-cultural context while marvellously synthesising a multitude of disciplines to help explain a subject too often written off as ‘arcane’.

Now, Antony Copley, an honorary research fellow in history at the University of Kent, gives us an absorbing, if rambling work titled Music and the Spiritual: Composers and Politics in the 20 century. Needless to say, the shadows of Taruskin and Ross loom large over Copley’s “project”. He attempts to zero in on the spiritual impulses in the works of selected European composers when confronted with the odium of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes.

The book ambitiously attempts to be as much about the politics of the spiritual while charting the spiritual response to politics of these composers. But while raising potent questions throughout, the narrative lacks any brilliant apercus to make it sparkle. Copley begins with Eastern Europe, with Russia and Alexander Scriabin, the egotistical, narcissistic piano maestro who veered towards the mystical through his governing obsession Mysterium — an extravagant musical project that he visualised taking place in a temple in the Himalayas.

From Scriabin, the exotic Theosophist, who blossomed in pre-Revolutionary Russia, Copley moves to the atheist Dmitri Shostakovich, who alternately blossomed and buckled under Soviet terror. Was Shostakovich an official Party man or a secret dissident whose music was couched in anti-Stalinist codes?

In 1936, Shostakovich, already Soviet Russia’s foremost composer, presented Lady Macbeth of Minsk. While this was uproariously greeted by the public, Stalin is said to have left the box after the opera. “Muddle instead of music,” flamed the headline next day of a 600-word article in Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper, which ended with a scarcely veiled warning to the young composer. December 1936 also marked the inauguration of The Great Terror — the start of the purges and show trials that brought the young composer on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The Party humiliates Shostakovich as an object lesson, but he comes through his nightmarish trial by fire, composes and conducts Leningrad with German guns booming outside the city and still manages to salvage his reputation as the Soviet Union’s premier composer. In this unnerving struggle, Copley traces Shostakovich’s ‘spirituality’ in his later symphonies namely Babi Yar, the 14th and the 15th.

Copley contrasts Shostakovich with his towering rival, Sergei Prokofiev who belonged to an older, altogether different generation. He charts the composer’s attachment to Christian Science, his privileged life under Tsarism during Russia’s Silver Age.

The moot question is whether Prokofiev could square his Christian faith with Soviet ideology? The author tellingly suggests that some of the composer’s finest music was composed during the period 1943-48, in the twilight of his life, when he was at the cusp of a process of “a painful journey of self-discovery”. Prokofiev called his 5 Symphony, acknowledged as his darkest commentary on Stalinism, as the triumph of the human spirit. Paradoxically, for the Party hacks, this was the piece where Prokofiev allegedly fell into line “with the expectations of the doctrines of socialist realism.” He was even crowned as the People’s Artist in November 1947. Likewise, the composer was unveiling his most complex work with his 6 Symphony at a time when even remotely independent-minded composers were being persecuted by the notorious Zhdanov decree (after the Leningrad Party boss Andrei Zhdanov, a mediocre pianist) that called for stifling conformity with doctrine and meted punishment to anyone consuming state resources for self-indulgent ends.

Copley convincingly suggests that under the crushing “duress of the Stalinist state”, both Prokofiev, the Christian Science convert, and Shostakovich, the atheist with no consolation of religious belief, developed inner resources that expressed a deeply spiritualist humanity in their music.

The book profiles two great contemporary classical composers in the Soviet satellite state of Poland, Henryk Gorecki and Krzystof Penderecki. Both composers, who are emblematic of the Polish Renaissance of the 1950s, bore the psychological scars of a state brutally ravaged by Nazi and Soviet excesses. The spiritual threads in their works, especially Gorecki's ethereal magnum opus Symphony of Soulful Songs, is examined in the repressive climate of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the country's last communist leader. The book also deals with the tension between religion and spirituality. As in the case of the homosexual Francis Poulenc, the conflict is between his sexual and spiritual anguish. He suggests that Poulenc’s Les dialogues des Carmelites– a work that precipitated a nervous breakdown – was inspired by the macabre death of his rival, Pierre Octave-Ferroud, who was decapitated in a car accident in Hungary in 1936.

Copley remarks that Poulenc’s serious religious music was often ignored in favour of his more frivolous compositions created as part of the Les Six. (The avant-garde post- World War I group that included Erik Satie and George Auric). He compares Poulenc’s fragile faith with his careerist compatriot Olivier Messiaen, ensconced as ‘the Grand Old Man of French music’ by the 1960s. Messiaen, a passionate believer in Roman Catholic mysticism, unfortunately benefited from the repugnant political clime in the Nazi puppet state of Vichy after the fall of France in 1940.

He was not only released from captivity in 1941 after a performance of his masterpiece Quartet for the End of Time, but also accepted a Vichy commission to perform in a musical show on Joan of Arc. Copley asks whether the spirituality of Messiaen’s Quartet was a response to the bleak times the world lived in. He concludes his project with the Germans, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Hans Werner Henze, who exemplify the age of New Music classicism. While Stockhausen veered towards the spiritual and mystical with readings like Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, his greatest influence, the author suggests, was Indian mysticism which manifested itself through the writings of Aurobindo Ghose. It was Stockhausen who controversially remarked of the 9/11 attacks that it was “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.” The utterance caused worldwide repugnance and cast a giant shadow on his obituaries at the time of his death in 2007.

MUSIC AND THE SPIRITUAL — Politics and Composers in the 20th Century: Antony Copley; Primus Books, Virat Bhavan, Mukherjee Nagar Commercial Complex, Delhi-110009. Rs. 1095.

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