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7

‘Music Left and Right’: A Tale of Two


Histories of Progressive Music

ANNE C. SHREFFLER
This essay is dedicated to the memory
of Reinhold Brinkmann (1934–2010)

THIS IS, AS FAR AS I KNOW, the first conference to be devoted entirely to music
and communism outside the communist bloc.1 As such, it presents an interesting
counter-narrative to prevailing scholarship, which has tended to emphasize
music under totalitarian regimes, communist and fascist: that is, situations in
which the operational relationship between music and politics is more readily
identifiable, if not necessarily clearer, than it is in Western democracies. The
notion of practising communism in the West may seem counterintuitive to some,
self-indulgent and naive to others. Particularly in the political climate of the
early twenty-first century, in which the fall of state communism has been
followed by a widespread dismissal of all views that ever pertained to it (at least
in mainstream politics), the whole enterprise of communist-inspired music
composed by citizens of Western democracies seems to have been rather
quixotic.
The topic of this conference focuses on the situations that arise as a result
of left-wing parties and cultural programmes occupying different positions in
non-communist countries than they did in communist ones. The ‘communist
bloc’ itself was of course hardly monolithic. Eastern bloc countries had different
histories and different relationships with Moscow, which resulted in vastly
different cultural experiences. (We need think only of avant-garde music in
Poland.) Western communist parties likewise differed in size, influence, and
degree of participation in the political process, as well as in their degree of
loyalty to Moscow. Whereas after the Second World War, the communist parties

1
I would like to express my thanks to the conference participants for their engaged questions
and insightful remarks on the original presentation, and to Andrea Bohlman for research assistance
in the preparation of this text.

Proceedings of the British Academy 185, 67–87. © The British Academy 2013.
68 Anne C. Shreffler

in France and Italy controlled seats in their respective parliaments and numerous
other offices at the state and city level, the Communist Party of the US has never
influenced mainstream politics. By comparison, the Communist Party of Great
Britain had a much larger (and fanatically loyal) following, although it too was
minuscule in relation to the mass parties on the continent.2
The Western communist parties also differed in their views on the importance
of employing art and culture for political ends. Here the French and Italian
parties were again the leaders, devoting their energies – and substantial
resources – to the cultural sphere, recognizing that the adroit wielding of ‘soft
power’ would win them prestige far beyond the limitations of their actual
political impact. Both parties also supported a far wider range of styles and
aesthetics than those officially approved in the Soviet Union.
If Western communist parties were freer than their counterparts in
communist-governed countries to theorize about how best to apply Marxist
principles to music, left-wing musicians in the West were freer still. Some
subscribed strictly to the party line, while others maintained their own, perhaps
blended or muddled, personal philosophies and political views. Luigi Nono, for
example, was a member of the Italian Communist Party, while others expressed
their political beliefs without formal participation in the political process. It
was relatively unusual for drastic penalties to be attached to party membership
in the West. The most striking exception was the period of ‘Red Scare’ anti-
communism in the United States during the late 1940s and 1950s. Elsewhere,
certain career paths or professorships at certain universities were off limits to
party members. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm recalled that the early
1950s ‘was a bad time to be a communist in the intellectual professions. Public
policy encouraged discrimination and treated us as potential or actual traitors,
and we were deeply suspect to our employers and colleagues.’3 Others felt
pressure to migrate to more congenial Western countries, as Konrad Boehmer
did when he left West Germany for Holland, or as Judith Malina did when she
relocated the Living Theater from New York to Italy after being the target of a
politically motivated tax investigation in the United States.4
Others found ways to work within the system. The obvious fact that musi-
cians are involved first and foremost with their profession, and often have little
time or training for the sustained study of political theory, means that their

2
For information about the relative size and strength of the European communist parties, see
R. Neal Tannahill, The Communist Parties of Western Europe: A Comparative Study (Westport,
CT and London: Greenwood Press, 1978), 6–7 (Italy), 7–8 (France), 18 (Great Britain).
3
Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (London: Allen Lane, 2002), 174.
4
Pierre Biner, The Living Theatre (New York: Horizon Press, 1972), 82–83.
TWO HISTORIES OF PROGRESSIVE MUSIC 69

musical approaches to political problems are quite various. Composers may


radically question the concert ritual and other basic frameworks in classical
music culture, or they may simply create works to be performed within existing
institutional settings. Without wanting to soft-pedal the very real persecution
that many were subjected to for their political beliefs, especially during the
McCarthy period in the United States, I do want to suggest that the penalties
for communist affiliation in the West were in general much milder than the harsh
punishment and forcible career-ending for those in the reverse situation in the
Soviet Union and Eastern bloc.
Although being a communist, or committed socialist, composer in a non-
communist country during the Cold War was not usually dangerous, it did
require a certain contrariness and willingness to work outside of the established
mainstream. This does not automatically translate into dissident status for
the minority position, since dissidence requires a certain level of recognition.
An American communist, for example, was more likely to be perceived as
extremely marginal rather than as a dissident, assuming that he or she was
noticed at all. Stefan Wolpe, living in New York City in the early 1950s, for
example, could speak openly of his enthusiasm for North Korea and China as
the Korean War broke out, yet remain unscathed, since he was too small a fish
to be recognized by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.5 Even
though there was an underground twelve-tone scene in the Soviet Union, as
Peter Schmelz has revealed, it is fair to say that work like Nono’s totally serial
Il Canto Sospeso, which enjoyed great prominence in Western avant-garde
circles in the late 1950s, could not have been produced in any communist
country at that time.6 Analogously, the technicolor diatonicism of Eisler’s Neue
Deutsche Volkslieder, had they been written by a composer in Connecticut
instead of the German Democratic Republic, would have relegated them to the
compositional underworld of school choral music rather than to the status of
celebrated contemporary work. The issue, then, is not whether certain styles
of music are present in a given society, but rather the degree of recognition,
approbation, and even canonic status that they enjoy.

5
See my ‘Stefan Wolpe: “Excerpts from Dr. Einstein’s Address about Peace in the Atomic Era”’,
in Settling New Scores: Music Manuscripts from the Paul Sacher Foundation, ed. Felix Meyer
(Mainz and London: Schott, 1998), 177.
6
On twelve-tone music in the Soviet Union, see Peter Schmelz, Such Freedom, If Only Musical:
Unofficial Soviet Music during the Thaw (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
70 Anne C. Shreffler

Progressive music for progressive politics: two models

My essay centres around the following question: what kinds of music have been
considered to exemplify left-wing thought in non-communist countries at
different times and places? I have chosen an intentionally simplistic model of
two basic categories, which I propose not as exclusive and all-encompassing,
but rather as the articulation of two ideal types. The overdrawn clarity of the
model is then filled out and complicated by looking at a series of musical
examples.
Political expression in music is always mediated by multiple forces: the
influence of powerful individuals or institutions, the particular history and
texture of political life, the role of certain musical traditions, and even historical
accident. Audiences, critics, and musical communities, which are seldom united
behind a single political platform, are also instrumental in forming and transmit-
ting political associations in connection with music. Within this very complex
musical and political landscape, I want to explore two of the primary functional
models for the relationship between music and left-wing politics in the twentieth
century, which one could characterize (simplistically) as the populist and the
modernist.
According to the populist model, music should be accessible to the masses,
and therefore preferably diatonic, tonal, and vocal, because words aid in the
production of meaning. It should foster participation and active political engage-
ment. Some of its artistic products were codified as Socialist Realism. In 1934,
the American left-wing composer Marc Blitzstein characterized this group as
‘the Popularists’, writing:
Their [the Popularists’] ideology, displayed in music for the masses, is
Communist Russian; their idol is Erik Satie, the Celtic Frenchman; their
social system is Central-European (note their utilitarian Gebrauchsmusik); they
have found practical uses for the virus of jazz, bred in America and spread the
world over. They are internationalists . . . In particular, the Communist composers
are developing the idea with cogency.7

Blitzstein clearly identifies ‘Popularist’ music as international, and notes partic-


ularly the significance of Russian and French influences. For this group, Satie’s
transparent and intentionally simple music language was both immediately
accessible as well as a bulwark against turgid over-complexity. Similar expres-
sions of a populist music cognate with progressive politics are found in the

7
Marc Blitzstein, ‘Towards a New Form’, The Musical Quarterly, 20/2 (1934), 216–17.
TWO HISTORIES OF PROGRESSIVE MUSIC 71

music and writings of Aaron Copland and other Americans, especially during
the ‘red 1930s’.
The second category, the modernist model of progressive music, received
its most extensive, and extreme, treatment in Theodor W. Adorno’s Philosophie
der neuen Musik of 1949, although the basic ideas had already been articulated
in the 1920s by Adorno and others. This viewpoint sees musical language
evolving as an inevitable result of historical forces. In using an ‘advanced’ idiom
– for example an atonal, twelve-tone, or serial language – music resists being
co-opted into the commercial sphere, or being used as a symbol of state power.
Responsible art music embodies all the contradictions and ‘crises’ of society
in its forms and language; in its autonomy, it holds up a mirror to the flawed
society and serves as a locus for structural critique. Specifically, in the 1930s
and 1940s it was held to represent an anti-Fascist stance. Advanced musical
languages moreover prevent a passive, ‘culinary’, purely emotional reception
of music on the part of the listener; the goal is to get the listener to think,
and even to change the listener’s consciousness. This strand of modernist
Marxism evolved musically from the Schoenberg school; Luigi Nono and
Helmut Lachenmann are among its descendants. It sees neo-classicism, and
indeed all contemporary tonal music, as politically and historically regressive.8
The two basic models for representing and fostering socialist thought in
music – the populist and the modernist – have been expressed in very different
ways by different people and have led to a great variety of musical styles, and
there are countless hybrid models as well.9 They are found on both sides of the
Iron Curtain, although the populist model is more closely associated with
Moscow and the United States, and the modernist one with Western Europe.
They coexisted throughout most of the century, often in the same country or
region and even within the same creative personality (Hanns Eisler comes to

8
This perception started quite early. Hanns Eisler, in a 1928 review in the communist paper, Die
rote Fahne, of a performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, associates neoclassicism with political
reaction; ‘Die Flucht in die Vorvergangenheit: Oedipus Rex’, in Hanns Eisler: Musik und Politik:
Schriften: Addenda, selected and ed. Günter Mayer (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik,
1983), 26. The following year, an article by the Italian composer Alfredo Casella extolling the
suitability of musical classicism for Italian fascism ignited a music-political debate: see Alfredo
Casella, ‘“Scarlattiana”. Alfredo Casella über sein neues Stück’, Musikblätter des Anbruch 11/1
(January 1929), 26–28. Also see the responses by Schoenberg, Krenek, and Malipiero in the
next issue (11/2 (February 1929), 79–81); and by Adorno, ‘Atonales Intermezzo?’, 11/5 (May
1929), 187–93.
9
Such as the approaches of Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, who were strongly influenced by Bertolt
Brecht; the anarchic experimentalism represented by the Cage circle; and the participant-based
composition of Cornelius Cardew and Christian Wolff. Each of these approaches has its own
genealogy and many descendants.
72 Anne C. Shreffler

mind). Yet the populist and the modernist approaches have just as often been
pitted against each other as arch-enemies; the ‘Expressionism debate’ of the
late 1930s between Georg Lukács on the ‘realist’ side and Ernst Bloch and
Bertolt Brecht on the ‘modernist’ side, centres around just this dichotomy.10
The current historiography of twentieth-century music, at least in the United
States, is strongly oriented towards the history of populist musical Marxism at
the expense of the modernist strain, which is almost completely unknown. In
European historiography it is practically the reverse. So it is useful to outline
these two perspectives for historiographical reasons alone.
In the two histories of progressive music sketched here, I have chosen some
examples that contrast in different ways; some clearly represent one or the
other ‘camp’, others blend the two models, and still others are associated with
non-communist or even anti-communist thought. I’ve made no attempt at
inclusiveness; many relevant figures, such as Brecht, Weill, Cardew, and Cage,
are left out, and I do not touch on popular music. I would like to use my examples
to explore the two primary categories of left-wing music and ask, what made
them such powerful models? What is at stake, musically and politically, in
each of them? What forces created and sustained the associations between
musical idioms and political ideas? Finally, how have these works been treated
in Western historical accounts, and how have these historiographical narratives
shifted since the end of the Cold War?

To the barricades

Hanns Eisler’s ‘Comintern Song’ (on a text by Franz Jahnke and Maxim
Vallentin), and the genre of Kampflied in general, represent the epitome of the
populist strain of Marxist music. Recorded by the legendary political singer
Ernst Busch, the song, composed in 1929–30, is meant to be experienced by a
group of people and to inspire them to action (Example 7.1).11
The song’s musical qualities contribute to its effectiveness. The rhythmic
identity across phrases, for example in the first two, which in their halting,
emphatic way evoke the text’s call to action, makes the song memorable. The
third phrase spins out the rhythm of the first two, stopping cleanly with the

10
See Hans-Jürgen Schmitt, Die Expressionismusdebatte: Materialien zu einer marxistischen
Realismuskonzeption (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973).
11
This performance, available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KncK5cZ5Rmk
(accessed 25 January 2012), comes from a Soviet recording issued in 1936 (see http://www.
russian-records.com/details.php?image_id=13018). I am grateful to Andrea Bohlman for tracking
down the reference to the original recording.
TWO HISTORIES OF PROGRESSIVE MUSIC 73

Example 7.1. Hanns Eisler, ‘Komintern-Lied’, from Canciones de las Brigadas Internacionales,
ed. Ernst Busch, 5th edition (Barcelona, 1938). Facsimile reprint with a prologue
by Manuel Requena Gallego (Seville: Centro de Estudios Andaluces/Editorial
Renacimiento, 2007), 127.

characteristic ending rhythm of two crotchets on the downbeat. Then the logjam
breaks. With ‘Die Fahnen entrollt’ (‘the banners unfurled’) the crotchet/dotted
quaver/semiquaver rhythm (a diminution of the minim/dotted crotchet/quaver
rhythm from the beginning) sets up a strong forward motion and a seemingly
unstoppable momentum. The return of the opening rhythm, along with the
singular melisma from the highest note, E, to the tonic D, underlines the all-
important line, ‘Wir erobern die Welt!’ (‘We’ll conquer the world!’).
There is much more that one could say about the song’s musical features
alone, as there is about Busch’s performance, particularly the tempo changes
that he employs to masterful effect. Instead I would like to think for a moment
about the function of the song, and how it signifies politically. While a concert
performance or passive listening is possible, the ‘Comintern Song’ is con-
structed in such a way that it is almost impossible not to sing along. (In his
recording, Busch sings the verses solo, and the chorus – the people – join in at
the refrains.) Even though the melody has large leaps, and there is a prominent
tritone at the beginning of the second phrase, these are easily negotiated diatonic
intervals, and the song is firmly anchored in D minor. The rhythms of the vocal
74 Anne C. Shreffler

line assist the less musically adept; the song could be chanted by a crowd in
rhythm without any melody at all, and still be perfectly intelligible and effective.
Yet the characteristic minor key and the march rhythms lend the song a grim,
almost desperate quality, implying that the world has not yet been ‘erobert’,
and the real fight is yet to come.
Therefore, Eisler’s ‘Comintern Song’ operates on several levels: as a catchy,
well-composed melody; as an effective vehicle for transmitting the meaning
of the words and making them memorable; as an opportunity for people to
participate in a musical action together; as a means of articulating a political
goal and generating positive feelings about the Communist International. The
ultimate goal, of course, was to motivate people to political action. This is just
as relevant in the specific context of the Spanish Civil War as it was for the
song’s origins in the agitprop group ‘Das rote Sprachrohr’ in 1929, or in mass
demonstrations in New York in 1935, or in any number of the song’s other
contexts.12 In the fight against Franco’s fascist army, the creation of a strong
collective identity was especially important, since volunteers had come from
all over the world. The songbook from which Example 7.1 is taken, Canciones
de las Brigadas Internacionales (which was edited by Busch), provides songs
and lyrics in sixteen languages. Above the English translation of the ‘Comintern
Song’ is the note: ‘This song has been translated into more different languages
than any other revolutionary song excepting the International.’13 Unifying these
disparate troops (which were also quite disparate politically, as George Orwell
unforgettably showed in his Homage to Catalonia) was crucial if the effort
was to be successful – which, as we know, it was not.
The idiom of the Kampflied cannot be stretched very far – and surely Eisler
stretched it about as far as it could go – without destroying a song’s suitability
for mass singing. Although it is possible to admire the song’s craftsmanship,
as we have done here, its accessibility and the political goals that this enables
outweigh any perception of aesthetic autonomy, and intentionally so. It was
crucial, according to Eisler, that the new workers’ songs avoid beauty for its
own sake, which had been the primary goal of bourgeois music as well as of
the earlier Tendenzlied. He wrote in 1931:
Enjoyment, which had been the main aim of music, was now the means to an
end. The [music] does not [primarily] satisfy the aesthetic sense of the [listener],

12
The song was arranged many times, and Eisler also used a version of this tune in his Suite for
Orchestra No. 5, Op. 34 (1933).
13
Canciones de las Brigadas Internacionales, ed. Ernst Busch, 5th edition (Barcelona, 1938).
Facsimile reprint with a prologue by Manuel Requena Gallego (Seville: Centro de Estudios
Andaluces/Editorial Renacimiento, 2007), 127.
TWO HISTORIES OF PROGRESSIVE MUSIC 75

but rather it uses beauty to educate him, in order to present the working class’s
method of thinking in a clear and tangible way.14

By linking beauty to function, Eisler questioned Western culture’s insistence


on autonomy as a necessary index of superior artistic quality. But the message
did not get through. In most Western historical accounts, Eisler is given the
back-handed compliment of being the master of the mass song. Even Richard
Taruskin, who in his influential Oxford History of Western Music otherwise
offers a strong critique of the ideology of aesthetic autonomy, similarly mar-
ginalizes Eisler’s accomplishments.15 The perceived incompatibility between
political practice and aesthetic autonomy that is so widespread in Western
culture, and which Eisler sought to overturn, is still an unspoken assumption
of mainstream music historiography.

Let us now praise famous men


If, as Eisler said, a good tune can be used to make words and their message
especially memorable, then melodrama – spoken recitation over music – has
the power to communicate to an audience in an even more direct way. Lincoln
Portrait by Aaron Copland (composed in 1942) and Arnold Schoenberg’s Ode
to Napoleon Buonaparte (composed in 1943) use the spoken voice to present
texts with overt political meaning, accompanied by music that underlines and
heightens that meaning. While there are many similarities between the two
works – both share a palpable Hollywood flavour – they were composed in two
very different musical idioms, and their composers come from opposite sides
of the political spectrum as well. I would like to compare these two works, one
representing the populist model of left-wing musical thought, and the other in
a modernist idiom, and not intending to be left-wing at all. Yet both the Lincoln
Portrait and the Ode to Napoleon are quite malleable in their political
associations, and can be tilted both left and right, as their later reception shows.
Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, commissioned by the conductor André
Kostelanetz to be part of ‘a musical portrait gallery of great Americans’, signals
its populist intentions in several ways.16 First, the musical language is diatonic

14
Eisler (‘Die Kunst als Lehrmeisterin im Klassenkampf’, 1931), in Hanns Eisler: Musik und
Politik: Schriften 1924–48, selected and ed. Günter Mayer (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für
Musik, 1973), 128–29. Translation mine.
15
Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music: The Early Twentieth Century (Oxford
and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 654.
16
Howard Pollack, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man (New York: Henry
Holt, 1999), 357.
76 Anne C. Shreffler

and features the transparent textures characteristic of much of Copland’s


music. Second, the quotation of popular songs, such as ‘The Camptown Races’
and ‘Springfield Mountain’, gives those who know these songs a feeling of
familiarity and pleasurable recognition. Finally, the recitation itself is the most
accessible feature of all: it is spoken in normal tones and rhythms, and the text
is always understandable (there is no musical notation for the reciter’s part,
unlike in Schoenberg’s Ode). Just as Eisler’s ‘Comintern Song’ is compre-
hensible even without the melody, because its rhythms can be chanted by an
untrained group, Copland’s Lincoln Portrait can be enjoyed even by the
musically unsophisticated. The passages with the reciter, who enters halfway
through the piece, are the most memorable. The seven-and-a-half minutes of
orchestral music that precede the reciter’s entrance are less well known, and
are sometimes even omitted in performance (for example, in almost all of the
versions available on YouTube).
The simple, diatonic musical language and the reciter’s role place the Lincoln
Portrait firmly in the populist camp. In the United States at that time, populist
music was firmly associated with left-wing thought, as my earlier quotation
from Marc Blitzstein also indicates. Stylistically, the Lincoln Portrait is a pure
example of American Socialist Realism. But what else would have made the
Lincoln Portrait seem left-wing to its original audiences? First, the figure of
Lincoln himself, who had freed the slaves and died a martyr’s death, was often
appropriated by Socialist causes and those who fought for racial equality. In
the Spanish Civil War, we recall, the American anti-fascist fighters were known
as the Abraham Lincoln Brigades. Moreover, the text, assembled by Copland
from Lincoln’s writings, responds clearly to the wartime context, speaking of
the ‘fiery trial through which we pass’ and the ‘stormy present’. But the country
faces not only the challenge of war, but also that of social inequality. Oppression
can take many forms, Lincoln says, and here his plea for social justice is clearly
articulated:
It is the eternal struggle between two principles – right and wrong – throughout
the world. It is the same spirit that says: ‘You toil and work and earn bread – and
I’ll eat it’ . . . No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a
king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of
their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it
is the same tyrannical principle.17

17
Aaron Copland, Lincoln Portrait for Speaker and Orchestra (New York: Boosey & Hawkes,
1943), 36.
TWO HISTORIES OF PROGRESSIVE MUSIC 77

Finally, the Lincoln Portrait would have been understood as left-wing because
Copland himself was known to have been strongly sympathetic to Socialist
causes; he was active in the communist-led Composers Collective in the 1930s,
and even composed a mass song, ‘Into the Streets May First’. This involvement
raised a red flag, so to speak, with the House Committee on Un-American
Activities, and Copland was to go through a gruelling interrogation and highly
public humiliation at the peak of McCarthyism.18 The Lincoln Portrait, which
had been programmed for the inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower in
1954, was abruptly taken off the programme as soon as objections were raised
by conservative Congress members.
The Lincoln Portrait survived this right-wing attack, however, and remains
a staple in the repertory, at least in the United States. Many famous personages
have recited the text, and in fact, the choice of narrator has a great impact on
the political message. For example, on September 11, 2005 (the fourth anniver-
sary of the 9/11 attacks), there was a performance with the Chicago Symphony
Orchestra; the narrator was the then Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.19
We need to keep this history of the ‘red Copland’ in mind, because it’s easy
for our more politically cynical age to hear the Lincoln Portrait’s glowing
portrait of an American hero as jingoistic American nationalism. The political
effect of the piece depends to a large extent on who is performing the narration.
A favourite of actors, the piece has been recited by Gregory Peck, James Earl
Jones, Katherine Hepburn, Tom Hanks, and many others, in (presumably)
politically neutral performances. As we have seen with the Obama performance,
Lincoln Portrait is also used as a vehicle for politicians, who are happy to
associate themselves with Lincoln. Yet Margaret Thatcher reciting the text is
apt to make a different political impression than Obama.20 Another example
of a ‘right-wing’ performance was narrated (in English) by the Italian busi-
nesswoman and politician Letizia Moratti, who was mayor of Milan and a
member of Berlusconi’s party, Il Popolo della Libertà. As education minister,
Moratti undertook unpopular reforms. In the YouTube video of the performance,
shouting and jeering protesters are seen interrupting the performance.21 While

18
See Pollack, Aaron Copland, 275–76 (‘Into the Streets May First’), 451–60 (on McCarthy,
Copland, and Lincoln Portrait), and Jennifer L. DeLapp, ‘Copland in the Fifties: Music and Ideol-
ogy in the McCarthy Era’, Ph.D. dissertation (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1997), 123–34.
19
An excerpt from this performance is available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch
?v=KTNv53j7fSo (accessed 25 January 2012).
20
This performance was released on Salute to Democracy, Wyn Morris, conductor, London
Symphony Orchestra, Margaret Thatcher, reciter (CD, EMI Classics, CDC 7 54539 2, 1992).
21
This excerpt is available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DFjunYx66A
(accessed 25 January 2012).
78 Anne C. Shreffler

Copland composed the work in the spirit of left-wing populism, given the right
context and speaker, even this clearly defined political message can ‘flip’ to a
different one entirely.
Whereas Copland’s Lincoln Portrait is intended to honour a hero,
Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon, for string quartet (or string orchestra), piano,
and reciter, based on Byron’s epic satire, cruelly mocks the figure of the defeated
and exiled emperor. It was apparent to the first audiences, as it is to us today,
that here Napoleon represents Hitler.22 After some 162 lines of angry verse
excoriating the tyrant Napoleon/Hitler, a true hero is invoked in the last stanza:
George Washington.23 A review of the premiere in December 1944 in Newsweek
magazine carried the approving headline: ‘Arnold Schoenberg scores off
tyrants’.24 Of course, Hitler was still in power when the piece was composed
while the exiled composer was living in Los Angeles, so for the original audi-
ences, the text painted a vivid imaginative picture of what could and should
happen; it was, in effect, propaganda, even though Schoenberg came up with
the idea for the piece himself and the government had nothing to do with its
commissioning. As Schoenberg later explained, ‘It deals with Napoleon like
we would have dealt with Hitler if we had caught him alive.’25
The compositional challenge for Schoenberg was capturing Byron’s scornful
and ironic tone while creating enough variety to sustain such a long text.
Whereas the Lincoln Portrait is completely devoid of irony, Schoenberg claimed
(in a letter to Orson Welles, who Schoenberg hoped would recite the text) that
the music of the Ode to Napoleon suggests 170 different shades of irony. For
these purposes Schoenberg employed a twelve-tone row with strong tonal
associations: each of the three adjacent notes form diatonic triads. Indeed the
sound of triads permeates the texture from the beginning (Example 7.2).
In spite of the explicit ‘anti-hero to hero’ narrative of the piece, the political
implications of Schoenberg’s Ode are less clear-cut than those of the Lincoln
Portrait. Yet the US State Department’s Office of War Information found the
work sufficiently convincing politically to be interested in broadcasting it in
wartime Germany over the Voice of America radio, as Reinhold Brinkmann

22
See for example the review by Olin Downes of the premiere, ‘Rodzinski Offers “Ode to
Napoleon”’, New York Times, 24 November 1944, 18.
23
According to Leonard Stein, Schoenberg was very impressed with Winston Churchill and was
thinking of his voice as a model for how he wanted the text recited; perhaps the Napoleon/Hitler
equation could be extended to Washington/Churchill? See Gerold W. Gruber, ed., Arnold
Schönberg: Interpretationen seiner Werke, vol. 2 (Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 2002), 89.
24
Quoted in Gruber, Arnold Schönberg, 81.
25
Quoted in Gruber, Arnold Schönberg, 88.
TWO HISTORIES OF PROGRESSIVE MUSIC 79

Example 7.2. Arnold Schoenberg, Ode to Napoleon, op. 41; entrance of reciter (used by
permission of Belmont Music Publishers).
80 Anne C. Shreffler

and Judith Ryan have shown.26 It was therefore deemed suitable for anti-fascist
propaganda, and the State Department asked Schoenberg for a German version
of the piece. It is not clear whether it was actually broadcast.27
On the personal level, Schoenberg could in no sense have been construed
as left-wing. His anti-communist convictions verged on the paranoiac, as his
later correspondence with Hermann Scherchen reveals.28 So we can safely say
that Schoenberg’s intentions did not include any kind of left-wing message,
however the piece might have been perceived. While the political resonances
of a work should never be limited to the composer’s intentions, there are other
factors besides Schoenberg’s own anti-communism that would have prevented
an American audience of that time from hearing the piece as left-wing. The
main one is the twelve-tone musical language, which remained antithetical to
the common American perception that Marxist culture had to be populist in
tone.29 However full of triads this particular twelve-tone row may have been,
the Ode was still heard as ‘advanced and devilishly difficult’, as a reviewer of
the premiere wrote.30
Another clue to the words’ political resonances is Schoenberg’s treatment
of the end of the piece, when the poem invokes George Washington. To my ears,
not one of the 170 forms of irony can be found in this passage; Schoenberg
seems to be completely sincere in his praise of the first American president.
Not only the piece’s notorious E-flat major close, but also the rising chromatic
line and vast crescendo that lead to it underline a ‘heroic’ reading of this passage.
This interpretation is even stronger in the German text, which Schoenberg
prepared; here, instead of Byron’s ‘To make man blush there was but one!’,
Washington has brought freedom to the human race: ‘vermacht/ der Menschheit,

26
See Abteilung VI: Kammermusik: Melodramen und Lieder mit Instrumenten, series B, vol. 24:2,
Arnold Schönberg: Sämtliche Werke, ed. Reinhold Brinkmann (Mainz and Vienna: Schott and
Universal, 1997), 132, and Judith Ryan, ‘Schoenberg’s Byron: The Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte,
the Antinomies of Modernism, and the Problem of German Imperialism’, in Music and the
Aesthetics of Modernity (Festschrift Reinhold Brinkmann), ed. Karol Berger and Anthony
Newcomb (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Department of Music, 2005), 201–16.
27
Sabine Feisst notes that the Office of War Information made a recording of the work, but
performances did not materialize; see her book, Schoenberg’s New World: The American Years
(Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 149.
28
Schoenberg’s 1950 correspondence with Scherchen was published in Hermann Scherchen
Musiker 1891–1966, ed. Hansjörg Pauli and Dagmar Wünsche (Berlin: Akademie der Künste
Edition Hentrich, 1986), 62–66.
29
Taruskin speaks, for example, of Wolpe’s ‘modified twelve-tone technique, formerly the bête
noir of all socially committed musicians’; see Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music:
The Early Twentieth Century, 13.
30
H. T., ‘Full House Hears Schoenberg Music’, New York Times, 24 November 1949, 46.
TWO HISTORIES OF PROGRESSIVE MUSIC 81

Example 7.3. Arnold Schoenberg, Ode to Napoleon, op. 41; conclusion (used by permission of
Belmont Music Publishers).
82 Anne C. Shreffler

der er Freiheit bracht’ (see Example 7.3). The use of the word ‘freedom’ here
eerily anticipates the Western, individualistic interpretation of the word that
became a Cold War trope.31
Whereas the Lincoln Portrait harks back to the 1930s, a time in which left-
wing thought reigned supreme in American intellectual and artistic circles,
the Ode to Napoleon, composed only a year later, looks ahead to a Cold War
aesthetic landscape in which advanced musical languages were used to sym-
bolize Western values, particularly that of individual freedom. At the same time,
the two works have a lot in common. Both spring from a musical environment
saturated with Hollywood films. Both reflect an age that embraced both hero-
worship and respect for the common man, like those portrayed in the popular
book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee, with photographs by
Walker Evans.32 And both, in spite of the enduring popularity of the Lincoln
Portrait, sound dated today, perhaps because the melodrama genre, so remi-
niscent of 1940s newsreels, and the texts themselves seem clichéd to today’s
more cynical ears.33

Suspended elegies

With Luigi Nono’s Il Canto Sospeso, premiered in 1956 at the apex of Cold War
tensions, we finally arrive at the post-war timeframe of the Red Strains
conference. The work is composed in an unabashedly modernist idiom – integral
serialism – but still articulates a strong political message. Nono drew the texts
of Il Canto Sospeso from letters of resistance fighters who were to be executed.
In an extended work for chorus and orchestra, whose vocal polyphony and scale
is meant to recall Bach’s B Minor Mass, Mozart’s Requiem, and Italian madri-
gals, Nono commemorates those who gave their lives fighting fascism and
oppression.34
At the time of its first performance in 1956, much was made of the fact that
the highly emotional text of Il Canto Sospeso had been set in such a way as to

31
See Anne C. Shreffler, ‘Ideologies of Serialism: Stravinsky’s Threni and the Congress for
Cultural Freedom’, in Music and the Aesthetics of Modernity, ed. Berger and Newcomb, 217–45.
32
James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
1944).
33
Yet the young Luigi Nono admired Schoenberg’s Ode enough to adopt its row in his Variazioni
canoniche of 1950, his first Darmstadt breakthrough.
34
Luigi Nono, ‘Text – Musik – Gesang’ (1960), in Luigi Nono: Texte, Studien zur seiner Musik,
selected and ed. Jürg Stenzl (Zürich: Atlantis, 1975), 50–58.
TWO HISTORIES OF PROGRESSIVE MUSIC 83

be mostly unintelligible.35 Syllables are separated from one another, syntax is


fractured and spread among different voices, and words are uttered simulta-
neously and in extreme vocal ranges. It was widely known at the time that this
treatment of the text was a result of the work’s serial structure. Yet the texts have
a strong impact when read, and their anti-fascist political message is clear. Why
would a composer want to disguise these texts? Is it Nono’s aim to use them
simply as an excuse for creating an autonomous musical structure?
The answer with respect to Nono’s aesthetic is complex, and many have
examined this question in detail.36 First, there is the perhaps banal but important
point that many of the words in Il Canto Sospeso are indeed audible, if one
makes the effort. Close listening reveals single words and even phrases that
stick out from the texture. In No. 7, the solo soprano’s ‘normal’ singing sets it
clearly apart from the women’s chorus, which sings ‘bocca chiusa’ throughout
the movement (Example 7.4). The orchestration of strings, flute, glockenspiel,
celesta, harp, vibraphone, and marimba creates a delicate, transparent sound
that allows the voices to be easily heard. The solo soprano’s words, ‘Addio
mamma’, delicately and indistinctly come to the fore, to great emotional effect.
Part of the movement’s dramaturgy is that the solo soprano begins and ends
‘bocca chiusa’ as well, only opening her mouth to utter the words ‘addio,
mamma’ etc., providing a musical and sonic analogue to the difficulty of
speaking under such circumstances, or of portraying such a situation at all.
Whereas in Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, anyone can sit back and take in the
recitation by the famous actor or politician, it is exactly this kind of passive
consumption and enjoyment that Nono wanted to prevent in Il Canto Sospeso.
Since the text is not easy to perceive semantically, one cannot simply be carried
along by the poignant words. Listeners are forced to attend carefully to the
music, or else not to listen at all. (The recording by Claudio Abbado and the
Berlin Philharmonic, which is based on live performances, includes recitations
of the texts, in German, by well-known actors. This practice creates a kind of
‘Lincoln Portrait’ immediacy, which I assume would be contrary to Nono’s
intentions.)37

35
The earliest and most influential critic was the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (‘Musik und
Sprache II’, Darmstädter Beiträge zur Neuen Musik 1 (1958), 65–74. Reprinted in Stockhausen,
Texte, vol. 2: Aufsätze 1952–62 zur musikalischen Praxis (Cologne: Verlag M. DuMont
Schauberg, 1964), 157–66).
36
Recent analyses of the work include Wolfgang Motz, Konstruktion und Ausdruck: Analytische
Betrachtungen zu Il Canto Sospeso (1955/56) von Luigi Nono (Saarbrücken: Pfau, 1996) and
Laurent Feneyrou, Il Canto Sospeso de Luigi Nono: Musique & Analyse (Paris: M. de Maule, 2002).
37
Luigi Nono, Il Canto Sospeso, Claudio Abbado, conductor, Berlin Philharmonic (CD, Sony
Classical, SK 53360, 1993).
84 Anne C. Shreffler

Example 7.4. Luigi Nono, Il Canto Sospeso, No. 7 (excerpt).


TWO HISTORIES OF PROGRESSIVE MUSIC 85

The question of the relationship between the meaning of the text in Il Canto
Sospeso and its deployment in the piece brings up two concepts that I believe
are crucial to the modernist model of progressive music: (1) breaking through
false consciousness; and (2) modelling a future, still unattained, utopia in
musical structure. The first relates to the notion that art should not lull its
recipients into a sense of false security or complacency, but rather should
communicate the truth about society’s historical position. The ultimate goal of
music, according to this understanding, would be to break down the audience’s
false consciousness: to pull away the curtain, revealing the sense of satisfaction
and well-being that the bourgeois concert ritual aims to provide as illusory and
artificial. Music should not be a diversion or a merely sensual enjoyment, as if
it were analogous to good cooking or interior decoration. Instead, music, like
all the higher arts, has an ethical obligation to speak the truth. Most established
artistic institutions, however, have a vested interest in making sure that this does
not happen, since their survival depends on deluding audiences into a belief
that the concerts and operas that they attend, whose repertories draw mainly
from the past, represent a vital musical culture. According to a modernist
Marxist understanding, any attempts to restore imagined traditions simply paper
over the deep fissures in our social organization and in our individual psyches.
Authentic art should reveal the contradictions of its time and place, rather than
rendering them in pleasant and harmless disguises.
In addition to destroying the passivity and complacency that false con-
sciousness brings, music could also play a positive role by modelling a future,
still unattained, utopia. Encountering new sounds and new ways of organizing
them could not – indeed, in this view, should not – stop at musical perception,
but should lead to changes in the listener’s way of thinking. Simply by recog-
nizing the new creation as a legitimate example of ‘music’, the listener would
be acknowledging that music can progress far beyond the familiar. A deeper
knowledge of the complex details of this new sonic landscape could lead to
thoughts about what else in society could also be changed to the same degree.
Nono explicitly claimed this kind of artistic modelling of reality in his music,
writing that ‘it has always been clear [to me] that a human being can realize
himself only in his relations with other people and society’. In Il Canto Sospeso
in particular, these connections are modelled, made audible by, in Nono’s words,
‘a horizontal melodic construction encompassing all registers; floating from
sound to sound, from syllable to syllable . . . These relationships . . . affect all
levels of the composition, like a net which extends in all directions.’38

38
From ‘Conversation with Hansjörg Pauli’, in Hansjörg Pauli, Für wen komponieren Sie
86 Anne C. Shreffler

Although Il Canto Sospeso expresses political sentiments, it avoids making


these explicit, in contrast to the Lincoln Portrait or the Ode to Napoleon. Nono’s
modernist aesthetic is characterized by a pull towards aesthetic autonomy, and
(equally important) by a complete rejection of the popular and especially the
commercial spheres. This attitude is consonant with the modernist anxieties
about anything that can detract from a work’s freedom to express musical, as
opposed to extra-musical, content. Nono also took care to avoid clichés of word
painting, as well as the imposition of overt and specific musical meaning, so
as to preserve the work’s aesthetic power.
While many of Nono’s works have become an integral part of the New Music
canon in Europe, they are seldom played in the United States. This is partly
for practical reasons (for example, the lack of experienced performers who
know how to realize Nono’s complex scores). But the main reason is that Nono’s
music and his politics seem to most Americans to be a contradiction in terms.
In his passage on Nono in the Oxford History, for example, Richard Taruskin
expresses his frustration with the ‘contradiction between [Nono’s] musical
idiom, which appealed only to an elite coterie, and his commitment to egalitarian
politics’.39 Taruskin’s views are shared by many and have the weight of a long
interpretive tradition behind them. Yet a misunderstanding occurs here because
Nono’s modernist model of progressive music is mistaken for a failed or
mistaken populist one. Nono’s vision of a future utopia, aimed at all of humanity,
was literally embodied in the otherworldly sounds produced by the serial
processes he used. The highly structured relations between pitches, registers,
and rhythms mirrors the interconnectedness that people might experience in a
better world. Nono’s aim is not to entertain or to please, but to express a powerful
vision. His political goals would be undermined if he allowed his audiences
passively to take in pleasant sounds – this would reinforce their false con-
sciousness of the current state of affairs, rather than awakening their critical
sense and their desire for change.

I have tried to sketch here two histories of left-wing music, the populist and
the modernist, each of which may seem utterly self-evident to those familiar
with that music and completely illogical to others. Yet both were present
throughout the twentieth century, and indeed the tensions between the populist
and the modernist tendencies in progressive music reflect those within Marxism
itself. David Priestland, for example, distinguishes between ‘Radical’ and

eigentlich? (1971), quoted in Christoph Flamm, ‘Preface’, in Luigi Nono, Il Canto Sospeso, new
edition, translated by Angela Davies (London and New York: Eulenburg, 1995), ix.
39
Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music: The Late Twentieth Century, 88.
TWO HISTORIES OF PROGRESSIVE MUSIC 87

‘Modernist’ Marxism. The former ‘was a Marxism of the mobilized masses,


. . . of revolutionary enthusiasm, mass-meeting “democracy” and a rough-and-
ready equality.’ Our populist musical Marxism clearly belongs to this strain.
‘Modernist Marxism’, Priestland describes, ‘was an ideology of technocratic
economic development – of the educated expert, the central plan and disci-
pline.’40 While leftist musical modernism did not necessarily see itself as
‘technocratic’, it was based on the idea of progress realized in every sphere of
life simultaneously. Left-wing musical modernism drew further sustenance
from the writings of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who criticized Marxism’s
almost exclusive focus on the masses. In order to influence the educated classes,
a new, advanced art that would be powerful enough to compete with the classical
tradition was needed.41
For most of the twentieth century, musical language became a battleground
over societies’ modernization processes in general. Social debates about the
modern and the traditional, the conservative and the progressive, the accessible
and the elite were projected into the musical sphere, with very real consequences
for how people composed, performed, organized, and received music. Political
thought figured into these debates, often becoming a driving force in musical
production and reception.
Here ideology can only take us so far. Sometimes a musical direction is
initiated and sustained by a powerful individual (such as Virgil Thomson, to
whom my title quotation alludes)42 or by institutional forces more than by a
political philosophy. More interesting than the simple identification of how
musical style has been mapped onto politics are the controversies that arise in
the process: music, as a powerful symbolic force, is contested territory for many
types of political and personal identification. Examining the political resonances
of music, or the musical resonances of politics, allows a better understanding
of some of the most fundamental ideas that have framed aesthetic discourse in
the twentieth century, encouraging us to view them not as abstract concepts,
but as weapons in highly charged political debates.

40
David Priestland, The Red Flag: A History of Communism (New York: Grove Press, 2009),
xxiv.
41
Antonio Gramsci, ‘Marxism and Modern Culture’, in Marxism and Art: Essays Classic and
Contemporary, ed. Maynard Solomon (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), 268–69.
42
Virgil Thomson, Music, Right and Left (New York: Holt, 1951).