Rulers and supplicants

By Miranda Wilson

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 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.


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