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Political repression and the development of Western classical music

A while ago I wrote a posting here about how Stalin had maybe made Shostakovich a better composer. Deeper, less flippantly modernistical, more soulful, more significant, that kind of thing. In one way, Soviet repression certainly made Shostakovich preferable to me, because I dislike opera, that is to say, I dislike the sound that it makes. Political repression meant that Shostakovich wrote less opera and more instrumental music. There is no doubt that if Shostakovich had had his way, he would have felt safe enough to write more operas, and that would surely have meant fewer symphonies, concertos and string quartets. All of which I adore, except when the symphonies burst into song, as they did towards the end.

I just do not like the way that most classical music singing is done. All that wobbling and bellowing. This style was developed to fill opera houses before microphones, and during the pre-microphone era this was all that there was, if people were going to be able to hear it at the back of the hall. But now, when I compare the average din, so to speak, of this this style with the best of the twentieth century microphone-savvy singers, I find the operatic manner very off-putting and a serious barrier to my enjoyment of and understanding of classical music as a whole. See also this recent posting over at my personal blog about Sting doing a CD of some songs by John Dowland, which I of course welcome. Since writing that posting I have actually heard Sting sing Dowland in a broadcast concert. Frankly, I thought his voice sounded far too strained and I did not enjoy it. But many clearly did, and maybe the CD will sound better. Either way, the attempt was definitely worth making, and I hope other pop singers follow his lead. This concert can be listened to courtesy of the BBC for the next week or so.

Ironically, one of the things about the operatic style of singing that particularly annoys me is that even if you do know the language they are supposed to be singing in, you often cannot hear the damn words, and have to resort to reading along with a little book if you want to know what is being said, just as if it was in a foreign language. This drains much of the spontaneity out of the experience. But, even if I can hear the words, I still hate all the wobbling and bellowing. On the other hand, if there is little or no wobbling or bellowing I often love it, even if I cannot understand the foreign words. I just listen to the sound of it, as if the singing was a violin or something.

If you, on the other hand, like the way the typical opera singer sounds, then I am very happy for you. I am absolutely not arguing that you should make yourself suffer from my dislike of opera singing even if you now do not. Lucky you.

But meanwhile, I personally wish some way could have been contrived to have made Shostakovich’s great English compositional contemporary Benjamin Britten write more symphonies, concertos and string quartets, and fewer operas, without ruining the political culture of the country where he happened to be born and to live, which happens also to be mine. I love Britten’s concertos, symphonies and string quartets, such as they are. But almost anything of Britten’s involving singing, particularly solo singing (classical choral singing I find less annoying), especially if the solo singing is being done by Peter Pears, causes me to switch off. Ironically, had Britten lived half a century later than he did, he might have felt a lot more inhibited about expressing his true ideas, given that so many of them involved the fact that he loved beautiful boys! He might instead have written fewer operas and more string quartets, and critics might then have argued about the alleged paedophilic sub-text of said quartets. And I could have ignored all that and loved the music a whole lot more than I now love Britten’s operas.

Anyway, I now want to speculate that maybe this Shostakovich/Britten contrast can be generalised, to throw light on the bigger story of Western classical music. Consider this, from the Mendelssohn chapter (p. 342 of my paperback edition) of the Michael Steen book which I have also already mentioned here :

The focus in the Mendelssohn household was the salon. As free speech was curtailed in this period, music, rather than conversation, was the essence of the entertainment.

The period Steen is talking about is the early nineteenth century, which was a key time in the development of classical music as people like me know it and love it.

Western classical music had its roots in the aristocratically ruled ancient regimes of Europe and in its equally hierarchical churches. It only later flourished as entertainment for a middle class ticket-buying audience. As a good little libertarian I want to believe that this bourgeois bit of the story was what made the difference, and it surely did make a difference. But as a lover of instrumental music and as one who merely tolerates most classical music singing, I have to face the fact that stopping composers composing things with the words of their choice seems to have lead directly to them saying things in musical code (Shostakovich style) with tunes and harmonies and rhythms, the meanings of which are ambiguous and buried, or even, politically speaking, absent.

Could the fact that continental Europe has been a more politically repressed place than England be one of the reasons why continental Europe contributed more to the development of classical music than England did? Could England’s relative political freedom even explain that long Purcell-to-Elgar classical compositional silence? English literature during that same period abounded, in which the writer, by definition, could speak his mind. Was that what made musical composition feel relatively unnecessary to the artists of England? Music in the classical manner was composed in England before Elgar, but it just does not have the same urgency of expression as is displayed in the best such music that was being written on the Continent during the same time.

Given the nature of what and how most artists think about politics, you have to admit that there is something deeply attractive about an art form where you get all the art you could possibly want, but from which, time after time, the politics has been stripped out.

I realise that this is a very half-baked notion, but in my opinion half-baked notions are one of the major reasons why blogging has caught on so big. You can fling out an idea without nailing your ego to it. You can post a half-baked idea, and then others can join in with the baking, or by explaining why the baking should cease, without a lot of time or emotional energy having been expended. One obvious objection to my theory is that England ought, perhaps, to have been full of locally composed opera during the ‘silence’. It was not. (Just third rate oratorios in immitation of Handel and Mendlessohn.) And Russia ought not to have done much in the way of literature, ever. 0 for 2. Nevertheless, the Shostakovich/Britten contrast makes me think there is definitely something to this idea of an inverse ratio between classical musical excellence and political freedom. I believe that a degree of political repression certainly explains why so much compositional effort went into the non-verbal side of classical music, which is surely at the heart of its extraordinary achievement.

Great art seems to happen when there is enough freedom to do something, but enough repression to create a bit of repressed feeling, as if in a steam engine. No pressure, and you are liable to get less great art. (The good news is that if the fear of repression is absent, greed will do just as well. Commercial pressure is still pressure.)

I surely can’t be the first person to have thought along these approximate lines. But who else has? Nobody I recall reading. Comments on that would be particularly welcome.

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14 comments to Political repression and the development of Western classical music

  • SK Peterson

    Brian,

    I think you make some valid points, but I’m not sure if you can generalize your hypothesis. It may be that some composers do (subjectively) improve their output under repressive conditions, but not all. Bach, to my knowledge, did not suffer from repression, and wrote the Brandenburg Concertos, while Sibelius wrote several of his major works as expressions of Finnish nationalism and cultural identity (Finlandia, Swan of Tuonela, and others) while under the oppressive domination of the Russians.

    I think the manifestation of artistic talent is a complex phenomenon with multiple causes, both internal and external to the artist. The use of political repression as a causal factor is one possiblility. But, so also are alcoholism, or homosexuality, or being European, or any number of other factors.

  • But now, when I compare the average din, so to speak, of this this style with the best of the twentieth century microphone-savvy singers, I find the operatic manner very off-putting and a serious barrier to my enjoyment of and understanding of classical music as a whole.

    No serious opera fan would ever go to an opera where the divas used microphones. They are only in place for the purpose of recording, not to reach the back of the hall.

  • But now, when I compare the average din, so to speak, of this this style with the best of the twentieth century microphone-savvy singers, I find the operatic manner very off-putting and a serious barrier to my enjoyment of and understanding of classical music as a whole.

    No serious opera fan would ever go to an opera where the divas used microphones. They are only in place for the purpose of recording, not to reach the back of the hall.

    Ironically, one of the things about the operatic style of singing that particularly annoys me is that even if you do know the language they are supposed to be singing in, you often cannot hear the damn words, and have to resort to reading along with a little book if you want to know what is being said, just as if it was in a foreign language.

    Usually they have subtitles, and it is not uncommon for most opera goers to have knowledge of the story in advance and hence attend only to enjoy the performance. Operas translated from Italian into English sound bloody awful IMO.

    But, even if I can hear the words, I still hate all the wobbling and bellowing.

    This is a bit like saying even if you can recognise the tune being played on a piano, you hate the sound of the keys being pressed. Opera singing is opera singing. Clearly you are not a fan of opera singing!

  • Michael Taylor

    One avenue of thought which might be worth exploring is to acknowledge that the western musical tradition is, one might say, inherently political, inasmuch as we ascribe near-sacred value to the act of composition – ie, to the careful construction and notation of musical events in such a way that they can be repeated to different publics at different times. Wide public engagement with the music is thus ensured.

    It’s therefore reasonable to assume that the different terms upon which it is permissable to assemble and address an audience will change the nature of that music.

    But this Western willingness to assert the primary of composition is musically one-eyed, and it engenders serious losses too. I was at small concert of Chinese music in Beijing this weekend, and there was a striking contrast between the extraordinary brilliance, blistering brilliance really, of the solo performers, and the wooden banality of their group-work. It’s difficult to describe this accurately or adequately, but the solo performers were all using majestic, even frantic, excess in order to, as it were, create the music that happens inbetween. (I think musicians will know what I mean – apologies to all others for my inarticulacy). But absolutely central to this is that these performances will be unrepeatable, and indeed, unrecordable. The music was the performance at that time in that place, with that acoustic and with that audience.

    Meanwhile, the demands of groupwork simply put a straightjacket on everyone, forcing them back into pentatonic banality. The same performers!

    The conductor Celibadache took his Buddhism onto the platform with him, and discouraged recordings precisely for that reason. Since his death, some recordings of his live performances have been released, and you can hear what he was up to. (Try the Bruckner 8 – last and longest version.)

  • JB

    There might be a parallel in that often the greatest qualities in mankind are brought about when fighting the greatest evils. Those that fought WWII only had the occasion to exhibit such bravery and heroism because of the threat of the Axis powers. The significance of art I think is strengthened when it is serving the purpose of fighting repression. So, for both these cases one could say that you need evil tyrants in order to have heroes to fight them, and you need political repression in order to have art that fights this repression. But is that really an a valid reason for an endorsement of evil? Hardly.

    When one thinks about the personal lives of many composers certainly the great geniuses often suffer many kinds of personal torments, an internal repression of sorts that is only relieved through their art – although, to be fair, many of the “tortured genius” literature is a fabrication. JS Bach was no tortured genius, and it would be hard to say Mozart or Brahms were either. Beethoven maybe.

    You are not the only one that hears opera with modern ears. Opera does indeed sound strange to the modern ear. There is simply no way to go through life being hearing all kinds of pop music and commercial jingles and then walk into an opera house and immediately enjoy it. In the same vein, you can’t grow up speaking english your whole life and then fly to Japan and immediately understand Japanese. And it’s difficult to enjoy cricket if you grew up watching baseball. I would love to see some studies done on how the brain interprets sounds and how this has lead to our contemporaries being unable to enjoy classical music as much as pop music. I think it basically comes down to what we’re exposed to. If you had grown up with only opera music you wouldn’t think it sounded strange.

  • There is simply no way to go through life being hearing all kinds of pop music and commercial jingles and then walk into an opera house and immediately enjoy it.

    Actually, I did pretty much just that. I had the opportunity to see The Marriage of Figaro having previously known nothing about opera, and was completely blown away by the arias.

  • I detest not only opera, but also Art Songs; but I think opera is at the root of it all. Several centuries of learning to out-shriek increasingly populous orchestras have NOT been kind to the humanity of the voices involved.

  • Henry Kaye

    I love traditional opera – can’t stand Britten et alia! Chaq’un a son gout!

  • bt

    Why limit the hypothesis to music?

    Way back when, paintings, sculpture, architectural design – indeed more or less any of the so-called arts, were produced as commissions – somebody knew what they wanted and paid the artist to produce it – for the private appreciation of the sponsor. And large numbers of these, often referred to as masterpieces, now grace museums, collections, galleries for the delectation of the many.

    Compare and contrast with the later stuff that’s cobbled together by those who produce on an ad hoc basis. Seems to me that some restraining, even disiplinary force from outside the artists studio isn’t such a bad thing at all.

  • Midwesterner

    To “All that wobbling and bellowing.” you can add yodeling. Which, like opera, is best heard from a distance in excess of the propogation of signal.

    Or put another way “If the good Lord had intended people to sing like that, he would never have created amplifiers.”

    It’s a relief to hear a respectable person voice opinions I get derided for.

    I seriously wonder if it’s a case of the emperor has no clothes and everybody is trying to impress each other with their erudition. For me it’s like watching synchronized swimming in the olympics. Obviously talented, but I can only wonder “why?”

    I better stop. I’m probably just digging myself in deeper. But in your speculation about about great music coming from cultures that have “been a more politically repressed”, in support of that hypothesis is the fact that while much good writing has come from the US, our only contributions to music have come primarily through the Jewish (George Gershwin, Aaron Copeland, etc) and Black (uncountably many artists) cultures.

  • On singing, and opera as idiom:

    It might interest you to know that ‘opera singers’ are trained at conservatoires by learning how to sing Art Song, i.e. singing is taught on a smaller, more intimate scale. It would seem that the unkempt sound and flaccid annunciation you talk about result from having to fill a huge proscenium theatre – often whilst acting – after this more modest technical training.

    It’s interesting that singers acclimatised to microphones will sing with a more meticulous attention to the immediate sound they produce. There’s no better (or perhaps more extreme) example of this than The Swingle Singers; try this clip of an arrangement of a Bach Three Part Invention, which ticks your criteria: no wobbles; nugatory text; more like orchestral music.

    Which brings me onto Shostakovich and Britten:

    I think your thesis on political pressure causing Shostakovich to write in the more abstract genre of orchestral/instrumental music is correct. However, Britten’s comparitive profligacy in vocal music is less to do with his lack of constraints. Rather, Britten’s great gift was for word setting and he felt a natural affinity for incorporating words into his music. I’d also add that Britten’s most original works were prepared for small scale theatres with commensurately modest forces, promoting the communication of text as a priority.

  • Should we in this context attach any special meaning to Britten’s friendships with several leading Soviet musicians – Rostropovich, Richter, not to mention Shostakovich himself? See for example my favourite
    performance of any piece of Britten’s music, the premier of the Cello Symphony, recorded live in Moscow by Rostropovich, with Britten conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra.

    Does this indicate some kind of deluded British leftist belief in the rightness of the soviet system? (Just guessing, I know nothing about Britten’s political views) Or just that in his day, for whatever reasons – maybe including some of the reasons Brian talked about – a remarkably high proportion of the world’s best classical musicians happened to be Russian.

  • Kim du Toit

    Brian,

    I wish you hadn’t written the first part of your piece — or at least made it another piece altogether — because it’s quite silly, whereas the second part is extraordinarily interesting by comparison.

    If I may compare it to the blues: it’s well known that the best blues come from composers who are suffering from some kind of pain (lost love, unrequited love, being Black, whatever). John Lennon’s “Mother” is an astonishing song, flowing from his ghastly childhood and (later) primal scream therapy, and “Help!” a genuine scream for help from the circumstances he found himself in, whereas his Yoko Ono-inspired love ditties were dreadful in the extreme.

    Could it be that, in like manner, repression of speech/thought can cause better composers to emerge?

    I need to hit the history/musical history books to make a thorough examination. Thank you, in advance, for filling my already-full weekend.

  • nobody

    I don’t know how many of you are concert goers, musicologists, or musicians(instrumental, vocal, compositional, etc…), but if you were the last kind, and had spent your whole life surrounded by musicians of ALL nationalities, and watched, listened to, studied a long history of performances of dead and alive… Lots of you would never say the things you say. Both about repression, any kind of it, AND about the why, how, and what of qualities of their technicality/artistry/soul in their music.
    The one huge question, with gazillion answers: what made that person play the way he/she does?
    Let me tell you, to name a few, technical and musical talent of his/her ethnicity/nationality, technical and musical talent genetically, technical and musical educational influences, life stories and what emotions or emotional levels he/she is familiar with, what is music to him/her.
    As I said before, if you grew up as a musician having seen so much, lots of things are SO answered, but at the same time, unanswered.