How Big Brother Changed Music

Michael Oliver considers the widespread effect of state control on music this century.

Barely two years to the millennium and we still have no idea of how the twenty-first century will view the music of this. Will serialism seem central or just a weird aberration? Of the scores of ‘isms’ currently in vogue which, if any, will survive? Was Stravinsky the century’s Beethoven or is it Meyerbeer? Of one thing we can be quite sure: any judicious history is bound to conclude that totalitarianism had more effect on Western music than any writer or critic; possibly more than even the most influential composer. Italy for over 20 years, Germany for a dozen, Spain and Portugal for half a century, Russia and its satellites for even longer: all were ruled by dictators or totalitarian regimes, and in all of them music was subject to censorship and political control.

The reason that we study history, so they say, is so that we can make sure that it doesn’t repeat itself. The creepily fascinating thing about the great dictators and their attitudes to music is that although they all had much the same effect – music was banned, composers silenced, performers controlled – they each went about it in quite different ways. So if we’re guarding against it in the future, we must keep our eyes peeled.

The Nazis in Germany were the most straightforward and the most efficient. They had talked about outlawing ‘degenerate’ (entartet) art before they came to power and once in control they moved fast. ‘Degenerate music’ meant anything modern or perplexing, especially if it seemed un-German; also any music written by Jews or other races the Nazis deemed inferior, so jazz and Mendelssohn were both banned. A huge proportion of the German musical profession emigrated, especially those who were Jewish; those who remained either capitulated, or went into ‘internal exile’, going on writing ‘degenerate’ music and hoping that one day they’d be able to have it performed, or were exterminated.

Soviet Russia began as a modernist’s paradise: communism was the new order and it would recruit everything new and challenging to its cause. Abstract painters, modernist musicians and poets rallied to the call, using their art for propaganda. Another faction, though, argued that the workers needed art that they could understand, a genuinely popular, proletarian art. With the rise of Stalin that view became state policy under the name of ‘socialist realism’; any artist who seemed to be going against that trend was in danger. Shostakovich, Prokofiev and others survived, probably because to eliminate them would have caused international scandal. Countless others were imprisoned, silenced or killed; a few managed to escape into exile. Similar orthodoxies were enforced in the satellite states, but from them escape was easier and for many years the most famous East European composers were the expatriate Czech Martinu, the refugee Hungarian Ligeti and the refugee Pole Panufnik.

Mussolini’s Italy, too, seemed sympathetic to modernism at first, and the Italians were slow in following their German allies’ lead in banning music by Jews or other ‘degenerates’: Schoenberg, Berg and Stravinsky were performed in Italy even during World War II. Mussolini, who played the violin and wrote music journalism as a young man, rather fancied himself as a patron of young and innovative artists. Whereas nearly all the best-known composers in Germany left the country, and a great many of those who remained in Russia were secretly critical of the regime, only one musician of any consequence left Italy in protest against fascism (Toscanini) and nearly all of those who stayed were warm supporters of Mussolini, at least for a while.

In Spain and Portugal, controlling the arts was easier, since they had received little government support before Franco and Salazar took power. Both regimes were nationalist, and patronised safe and picturesque nationalist art. Both were philistine and suppressed the arts by ignoring them and denying them funding. One Spanish composer, who was six years old when Franco came to power, says that his generation ‘have no fathers’: almost every distinguished Spanish artist or intellectual of the previous generation left the country, and many never returned.

This chasm of totalitarianism, ploughed across the landscape of our century, is one of the main reasons for the rise of modernism. Modernism had the allure of having been forbidden, in some of those countries for as long as even a middle-aged composer could remember. Joining the modernist vanguard after a dictatorship had perished was also a symbolic way of demonstrating that that country had rejoined the free world. And for a young German or Italian composer in 1945 or a young Russian more recently, to continue writing in the styles that were in vogue in those countries before Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin came to power was simply impossible. Those regimes had dishonoured the very images of German, Italian and Russian art: there had to be a new beginning that denied the shameful past.

But in recent years we’ve been beginning to discover the music the dictators suppressed or which represents the opposition to them. The music of those composers who were incarcerated in the ‘show-camp’ at Terezin on their way to Auschwitz. The music of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, a staunch anti-Nazi who remained in Germany but refused to allow his music to be performed while Hitler’s regime lasted. An unknown number of Russians whose music was banned and who either fell silent or wrote commercial music to make ends meet – the names of Nikolai Roslavets, Lev Knipper and Gavriil Popov are beginning to emerge; how many others are there? Those few Portuguese and especially Spaniards – men like luis de Pablo and Cristóbal Halffter – who wrote protest music and somehow managed to get it performed under the noses of the secret police. The unbearably moving music that Luigi Dallapiccola, once a Mussolini supporter, wrote when he realised where fascism was leading. Getting to know their music makes it just a little less likely that history will repeat itself.

Classic CD magazine, 1998


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