From Plato to Nato: Gibbs discusses classical music’s place in political history

Classical music might have been relegated to the labs of evil geniuses in popular culture, but Bard College’s James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Music Christopher Gibbs thinks there’s more to the realm of Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms than stiff upper lips.

Gibbs’ morning lecture, delivered Monday in the Amphitheater, was concerned with classical musical traditions from antiquity to the Cold War — “from Plato to NATO.” He drew on his long Chautauqua Institution history of attending musical performances at the Amphitheater to give context for the audience.

Interspersed in Gibbs’ lecture were musical samples, including the Act 1 finale of Don Giovanni to the end of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 “Ode to Freedom” to, finally, Verdi’s “Va, pensiero,” which Gibbs described as the unofficial anthem of Italy in the years leading up to its unification in 1871.

Music has long been in the political realm. In the current age, politics and music are generally thought of in terms of popular music, largely connected to its use of lyrics and words. Gibbs said this trend has been in vogue since the Civil Rights and anti-war protests of the mid-20th century. He cited President Barack Obama’s impromptu rendition of “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy of the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting victims as a recent example of the healing power of words in music.

Classical music, though, has a long history of political connotations, despite modern-day definitions as “elitist and snobbish,” he said. He partly attributed this to a Western sense of detached separation between music listeners and musicians whereas in other cultures, communal music-making is common and the lines less delineated.

“I believe making these connections between music, art, politics and ethics is important for the future of classical music,” he said.

He quoted musicologist Richard Taruskin’s 2008 book The Danger of Music: And Other Anti-Utopian Essays, which had great influence on his talk: “An excess of aesthetic autonomy has, for all intents and purposes, killed music for the 20th century. A bit of old-fashioned ethical and political consternation may be just what it takes to revive it in the 21st.”

Early music, by its nature, survives only through description and, in some cases, ancient instruments that made it through the scourge of time, Gibbs said.

Nonetheless, Greek philosophers like Plato spoke quite seriously about the ethical implications of music for good and ill. Music notation in its earliest form was a method of the Romans to spread its cultural and religious reach, he said. One of the earliest examples was the Gregorian chant, a sacred song of the Western Roman Catholic Church.

Through major societal upheaval, music has transformed along with civilization. Gibbs noted Martin Luther, a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation, supported music and communication while Calvinists, followers of rival theologian John Calvin, did not.

Music as a political force was even more integral to the Enlightenment of the mid-17th and the late-18th centuries. This was the era of famous classical musicians Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

“Mozart is a really perfect figure because, in some ways, it is his music at the core and foundation of orchestration and operatic repertory,” Gibbs said. “He was the universal genius of music — not only a brilliant performer as a pianist and violinist, but also someone who excelled at every genre and composition: keyboard, orchestral, chamber, religious and, crucially, opera.”

In Gibbs’ opinion, operas have long been the easiest musical form to connect to politics. Any given day, a half-dozen of Mozart’s operas are performed worldwide.

On the other hand, Beethoven was a master of “heroic” music. For instance, “Wellington’s Victory” which, not-so-subtly in Gibbs opinion, musically illustrated a battle between British and French forces, with the French part in the music turning from major to minor by the end and fading away.

The piece of music inspired Tchaikovsky’s famous “1812 Overture,” which also sonically depicted opposing sides in battle.

In times of political repression, music offers a realm less constrained than literature and plays might be, Gibbs said. In Beethoven’s later career, all art had to pass censors. Franz Schubert, an Austrian writer and contemporary of Beethoven’s, lamented, “Musicians are immune to the censors. No one knows what they’re thinking when they compose.”

Gibbs said the political dimensions of classical music are easier to miss because they require more thought and imagination on the part of the listener to discover.

Music has been used or made in the service of evil as well, Gibbs said. Nowhere is it clearer than in the fascist regimes of the early-to-mid 20th century, specifically those of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Benito Mussolini. The political dimension extends from the composer’s intention to how pieces are used and received over time.

Separate from music and politics, Gibbs said there is also musical politics, which debates the effect influence, intent and use have on particular music. Music was often co-opted, he said, but as the 20th century progressed, classic pieces succumbed to this effect. Beethoven’s music, specifically his Ninth Symphony, was a piece used by the Nazi Party in propaganda. Hitler revered the “three Bs: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.” Simultaneously, Beethoven was also used by the Allies. The question of the effects of these contradictory uses is the subject of musical politics, Gibbs said.

This occurred during a rise in music as statements of nationalism in the early 20th century. For example, the music of Tchaikovsky is identified as inextricably Russian in the same way Frederic Chopin’s music is Polish.

During the Russian invasion of Poland in 1831, French political thinker Robert Schuman said if Czar Nicholas I “knew what a dangerous enemy threatened him in Chopin’s work, he would forbid this music. Chopin’s feelings are guns hidden in flowers.”

For example, famous composer Richard Wagner was a German nationalist and anti-Semite whose music was adopted by Nazi Germany and, to this day, remains banned in Israel. Is it possible to listen to Wagner’s music without the stain of his associations? Gibbs asked.

Composer Carl Orff’s relationship with the Nazi Party and fascism was nebulous by comparison. However, in contrast to Wagner, his work is celebratory rather than pompous. But at the same time, it was seductively simple and manipulative, Gibbs said.

He described Carmina Burana as Orff’s “one-hit wonder.” It remains the only one of his pieces still widely performed in the international sphere, despite the fact that, at its release, it was a big hit among Nazis.

Still, much like Beethoven’s later work, the music was praised while the lyrics were not. Propagandist minister Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary that Carmina Burana “exhibits exquisite beauty, and if we can get him to do something about his lyrics, this music would certainly be very promising. I will send for him on the next possible occasion.”

Classical music has been used by both Western democracies and totalitarian states as instruments of war and statism. But today, classical music has been relegated to fringes of culture.

“It’s no secret that, today, it is dying,” Gibbs said. “We’re told it endlessly. I’m not sure whether it is murder, suicide or extended life support. But, as a historian, I know music is always changing — how it’s composed, disseminated and received and what its meaning is. I think the solution today is not to be trendy or to make it relevant, but found my students’ appreciate learning there is more to music than just the notes.”