The Artist’s Conscience

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Artist’s Conscience, performed on Sep 28, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Many of our preconceptions about music as an art form date from the late eighteenth century, when music-making in the courts and urban centers in its secular forms achieved high intellectual and social prestige. This period in music history has come to be known as the Classical era. The term classicism seems appropriate. First, music in the age of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven thrived in the context of a rebirth of interest in classical architecture, philosophy, and literature. This intense preoccupation with Greco-Roman culture and art was associated with the Enlightenment, an age traditionally (but not altogether accurately) linked to the cause of reason, empiricism, and a conscious modeling of thought and ideas on the ideals of antiquity. The Enlightenment was also the age of the American and French Revolutions, a period when ideals of democracy and freedom as rational objectives flourished. The second justification for calling late-eighteenth-century music “classical” is that western secular art music was a relatively younger sibling to painting and literature. Comparative history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often paralleled the founding phase of late-eighteenth-century music to Pericles’ Greece and Cicero’s Rome.

Part of the logic for this comparison was classical music’s assertion of a universal aesthetic, of normative values and standards. The rules of musical composition were thought to be objective and naturally evident, as it were. For example, the organization of pitch and the system of western tonality were understood as inherently logical and indicative of proper formal procedures and compositional structure. What constituted good and bad music, the beautiful or sublime and the ugly or vulgar, were not merely matters of taste or prejudice; they were fixed categories deduced from prescribed aesthetic practices. But as the nineteenth century progressed, this notion of a rational, objective aesthetic and a universal language of music was met with increasing skepticism. An important source of this skepticism derived from nationalist movements that used culture as politics. Nationalists favored the specific and peculiar attributes of a constructed community (usually defined by a mythic and endangered rural past) as the basis of deciding what was valid in musical expression. Music for these nationalist schools of composition was no longer based on a universal paradigm. There was a new objective in the expression of a singular ethnicity or culture. This tendency was strong both in smaller nationalist groupings under the thumb of larger powers as well as in the leading imperial nation states of Europe. The challenge to the ideal of a universal, rational aesthetic was also a hallmark of romanticism in which the unusual and original were prized. The exercise of freedom and subjectivity marks the achievement of the hero of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger (1868). Walther, in his “Prize Song,” renders music truly expressive for his contemporaries by breaking all the rules. By the end of the nineteenth century, nationalism and a late-romantic sensibility in music dominated the concert stage, the dance hall, and the theater in both opera and operetta.

Romantic music, favored by the urban elites in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg and Milan, is often richly textured, lush, and highly chromatic. In orchestral and choral music, large forces and long durations became the rule. This was, in part, the legacy of a reaction against the austere rationality of classicism. However, late-nineteenth-century romanticism was itself destined to become the object of attack by subsequent generations. In the twentieth century, in the wake of the carnage of World War I, the poverty and suffering of the Great Depression, the inhumanities of World War II, and the anxiety generated by the atomic age and the Cold War, the excessive emotionalism associated with romantic music seemed trivial, artificial and self-indulgent. There was also growing concern among composers during the first half of the twentieth century about commercial and popular music. There was too much “easy listening” music that seemed derivative and manipulative. This debate raised an important issue for composers who sought to reconcile their art with their political beliefs. They worried about the ways in which a public art form like music could be used for good or evil in a social and cultural system that seemed at best utterly mundane, and at worst responsible for egregious horror and suffering. In other words, many socially-conscious composers were confronted with the following question: how could music inspire the public to resist oppression and intolerance or to instill ethical responsibility into modern life? Conversely, how might their music, composed in the name of beauty and aesthetic standards, inadvertently support political regimes like Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, or Stalin’s Russia?

Thus in the last century, aesthetic choices often became explicitly political and philosophical. At the same time, composers in the early decades of that century searched for a way out of the shadow of Richard Wagner and his followers. Wagner after all was a perfect example of how uncomfortable the connection between aesthetics and politics could be. Debussy, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg in their own respective ways drifted back toward the ideals of classicism. In doing so they offered an implicit denial of the dubious achievements of modernity. They adopted an aesthetic that predated the French Revolution and romanticism and even the Age of Enlightenment. In the 1920s, Arnold Schoenberg developed an entirely new system of music, the twelve-tone method. This self-referential construct of how pitch is organized offered composers a way to compose that was free of any express complicity with the evils of contemporary society. The twelve-tone method was for Schoenberg the equivalent of the classical rules of composition that late romanticism had abandoned. A new rational, universal aesthetic that defended the aesthetic and ethical autonomy of music could be asserted. Schoenberg’s modernist innovation, precisely because of its rational structure and novelty, became closely associated with anti-fascism. His disassociation from the luxuriant indulgences of Wagner and romantic traditionalists was a vivid refutation of the official aesthetic of fascist Germany and Austria; his intense, nonconformist music became a symbol for artistic and social freedom. Radical modernism in music became synonymous with the spirit of resistance to oppression.

The two composers on today’s program are two undisputed giants of this tradition of modernism. They are also two of the greatest Italian composers of the twentieth century. The older of the two was Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975). He was in his twenties when, after years of enthusiasm for Wagner, he discovered Debussy. By the early 1930s he had become aware of the Viennese school associated with Schoenberg and his two most prominent disciples, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Dallapiccola, not unlike many well-intentioned European intellectuals, held a relatively mild and sympathetic view of Mussolini in the early 1930s. But he later became a staunch opponent of fascism. He was horrified by the Spanish Civil War, anti-Semitism and the war in Ethiopia.

In the aftermath of World War II, Dallapiccola’s politics and aesthetics became entirely integrated. He used the twelve-tone method of composition as a basis for his work. He sought to express through music a profound anxiety concerning the state of liberty and the human condition in the contemporary world. It is important to note that Dallapiccola’s engagement with Neoclassicism was already audible before World War II, yet Dallapiccola’s reputation as an important composer in the history of music stems from the works he wrote after 1939.

Dallapiccola is to Italian modern music what Alban Berg was to modernism in Central and Eastern Europe. His work combines a palpable emotionalism and individuality with the new techniques spearheaded by Schoenberg and adapted by Webern. It was a highly personal and charged mode of expression, particularly evidenced by the libretti and music of his operas Il prigioniero (1948) and Ulisse (1968). Dallapiccola’s spirit is partly mirrored by the philosophy of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their famous book The Dialectic of Enlightenment. The character of Odysseus figures prominently. His story is used both by Adorno and Horkheimer, and by Dallapiccola to challenge the conceits of reason and progress, of romanticism and the Enlightenment.

The first of the Dallapiccola works on today’s program, Canti di prigionia (1941) was written during the war, to texts from victims of oppression and arbitrary political power: the Scottish queen Mary Stuart, the philosopher Boethius, and the Florentine priest Savonarola who was burned at the stake. Incidentally, Dallapiccola himself was a long-time resident of Florence. The second, more optimistic, Canti di liberazione, completed in 1955, suggests the more reflective and interior dialogue characteristic of the generation of writers in France and Italy after the war, particularly Albert Camus and Eugenio Montale.

These works should, for the listener, justify a comparison between Dallapiccola and Berg. Like Wozzeck (1925) and Lulu (1937), Dallapiccola’s works are searing and powerful musical representations of the contradictions and sufferings peculiar to individuals in the twentieth century. Today, at the moment these works are being performed, it is perhaps not too excessive to suggest that American democracy is itself in a precarious state. Our freedoms in the post 9/11 environment are threatened by fear, the politics of fundamentalist religion and mass apathy. In the place of a healthy political debate we remain as a culture stimulated only by commercial entertainment. How else can we explain the continuing appearance of second-rate movie stars as political hopefuls? Perhaps we might take some inspiration from the integrity and unsettling beauty of Dallapiccola’s vision of the possibilities of freedom and his setting of the voice of the oppressed.

If politics played an important part in Dallapiccola’s evolution as a composer, they were the overriding element in Luigi Nono’s career. Nono (1924-1991) was twenty years Dallapiccola’s junior and died sixteen years after Dallapiccola. He was deeply influenced by Bruno Maderna and his evolution as a composer can be compared to contemporaries in post-war France and Germany, such as Boulez and Stockhausen. Nono saw in the second Viennese school the ideal synthesis of high aesthetic values and political virtue. He accepted its utility as a force against fascism and capitalism. Unlike Boulez, Nono never acquired the reputation he deserved in the United States; until relatively recently, his work was rarely performed in this country. My own first encounter with the work of Nono came through a strange circumstance when I was seventeen years old in the mid-1960s. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I was asked for some inexplicable reason to be the official guide and host to a visiting painter, the Italian Emilio Vedova. He spoke no English and I spoke no Italian, but the three days I spent with him left a lasting impression. Language did not prevent Vedova from urgently communicating his thought that I should look into the music of his friend Luigi Nono. For Vedova, Nono represented the ideal integration of modernity with the politics of conscience and aesthetic inspiration. Nono was a member of the Communist Party; hence the rarity of his music in America. Indeed, one of the reasons the Arnold Schoenberg Archives, when they left the University of Southern California, ended up in Vienna (something Schoenberg himself probably would have viewed with horror) was that the daughter of Schoenberg was married to Luigi Nono. Nuria Schoenberg Nono may have harbored a long-term resentment against the United States for the obstacles it caused even in allowing Nono to visit this country.

Nono’s political radicalism went much further than Dallapiccola’s, but precisely this political commitment led Nono to experiment in modes of musical expression that went well beyond the mid-twentieth-century twelve-tone style. Very few of Nono’s works from the 1960s and 1970s are divorced from an engagement with the figures and events of the time, whether they be the Cuban Revolution, Malcolm X, or Latin American politics. Nono retained constant admiration for the radical philosophical and political theorists of German-speaking Europe including Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Bertolt Brecht, and Walter Benjamin.

The works by Nono on today’s program date from the 1950s and focus on the events of the Spanish Civil War. For the generations of both Dallapiccola and Nono, the Spanish Civil War assumed a symbolic importance as the pivotal moment in history when the civilized world that celebrated freedom and reason and the ideals of the Enlightenment could have proved itself to be true to itself and failed. Today’s revisionist views of Franco and the Spanish Republic notwithstanding, for Nono and his contemporaries, the Spanish Civil War represented a good and just cause that unmasked the hypocrisy of the western world. There have been many literary and artistic celebrations of the heroism of the defenders of the Spanish Republic and the horror at their defeat and destruction. Picasso and Casals are two of the most famous defenders of the Republican cause. The Epitaffi are the musical equivalent of Picasso’s Guernica.

The works on today’s program were intended by their composers to be more than depictions or reactions to past and present. These composers wanted to create works that could serve as a shock, a call to resist the consolidation of economic and political power in the hands of the few. In their view, art needed to inspire citizens to protect themselves against the suppression of freedom in the name of order and church and state authority. For both Dallapiccola and Nono, the answer to the question posed earlier of how to make one’s music relevant to and participatory in the social and political realities that influence every other aspect of life, is to offer highly personalized and riveting musical fabrics. Listeners may disagree and even object to their politics, but there is little doubt that the idealism and the ethical character of their aspirations are beyond reproach. Their music was designed to transform the listening experience. For them, music is never merely a matter of entertainment or cultural condescension. The concert experience should be one in which music and art serve the task of awakening in listeners a sense of value and significance as actors in the public realm. The works on today’s program affirm the possibility of each of us to stand up against uniformity, passivity, the absence of liberty, and the intolerance imposed not only from above, but from our fellow citizens.