I seldom look at my doctoral dissertation these days, mostly because I no longer consider it representative of my best work or agree with the analyses I made. But I wanted to check a reference for an article I was writing today, and I knew the quickest way would be to find my own bibliography. I was about the plug in the external hard drive where I’d saved it all those years ago when it occurred to me that it would probably be faster simply to get it from the University of Texas Library website. Unable immediately to remember the website address, I simply Googled my name and the title of my dissertation. I was nonplussed to get pages and pages of hits just from my own little paper from 2005. If you don’t find me at UT, there are innumerable other places that have my dissertation readily downloadable in PDF format at the click of a mouse. Even if –God forbid–the University of Texas were annihilated in an alien invasion or meteor collision, you could still read my dissertation.

That’s when it struck me how anything we publish, no matter how insignificant, is going to be there in plain sight in hundreds or thousands of databases and reference sites. It’s simply not possible to cover anything up now. 50 years ago, or even 20, a dissertation might have been printed and bound and consigned to a library archive more or less forever, probably unread. Even if someone did want to read it, he or she would have to go to some trouble with interlibrary loans and special permissions. By contrast, anyone who wants to can instantly access my writing and judge me accordingly. No matter that I did a lot of growing up and mind-changing since 2005. No matter that I’ve since listened to and accepted the criticism of a number of Shostakovich scholars (“An artist’s response to just criticism”? Ha, just my little Shostakovich in-joke). It’s out there for all to see and I can’t take it back.

With this gloomy thought in mind, I turn with unease and exponentially increasing attentiveness to the task of proofreading some of my current writing.

Rulers and supplicants

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, in a recent Independent interview, has stated that his music and politics don’t mix. But is this really true? Musicians, at least in Britain and America, tend to be a moderately lefty bunch, and I imagine most would balk at having their compositions broadcast at a right-wing party convention. Yorke himself is a climate change activist, a decidedly left-wing preoccupation, and some of his songs clearly reflect his political sentiments. 

Perhaps it would be more accurate to propose that composers react badly to having their music conflated with political ideals they don’t share. (Think of New Jersey governor and adoring Bruce Springsteen fan Chris Christie, for example: the left-wing Springsteen refused until very recently even to meet his worshipper.) Because clearly music and politics have been mixing for a long time. Whether they mix well or badly is the real question.

The ruling classes have many status symbols. Property, vehicles and clothes, of course, but also the arts. Music has always been powerful politically and as a status symbol. Why? Because all cultures of the world love music, and because music costs a lot of money. The ruling classes have known this for centuries–consider the patronage of the Gonzaga family, or the Esterhazys, who employed Haydn, Europe’s top composer. We musicians traditionally have a special relationship with the super-rich, because each party has something the other wants. Obviously, the rich want music; even more obviously, our perennially impecunious profession wants money. This was powerfully impressed upon me during the summer I spent at the Aspen Music Festival and School, where musicians were directly instructed to go forth and act as supplicants to the local super-rich. (“The billionaires have chased the millionaires out of town,” a genial local ski-field owner cheerfully informed me at a post-concert reception in his splendid house.)

There’s always a price, though. Consider also the usefulness of music in propaganda as both political tool and reflection of the times. When I teach Soviet music, I ask my American students to reflect upon the importance of music in totalitarian society. Can they even imagine an American government interfering in the lives and compositional habits of musicians? Can they imagine a composer’s being press-ganged into joining a political party, as Shostakovich was in the 1960s, or lambasted by a Stalinist apparatchik for “formalism” or any other -ism, as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and Myaskovsky were in 1948? Most of them shake their heads in amazement. And yet, something comparable did happen here within living memory, when Pete Seeger was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The point I want to make is that dictatorships don’t exclusively happen to other people.

The uneasy relationship between rulers and artists also results in the timeless tradition of protest music, from Josquin’s El grillo, which seems to imply that although a cricket will sing for love, Josquin won’t, to Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, an explicit message that the musicians of Esterhaza wanted to go home to Vienna, all the way through to veiled criticisms of totalitarianism by Hindemith or Dallapiccola, and Seeger’s pro-union, anti-establishment ballads. Protest is powerful when great music is attached to it. While being in the constant position of supplicant can be humiliating, I sometimes wonder which side–artist or ruler–holds the greater power.