Aug 10th 2016

How to negotiate the tricky territory of 'fascist music'

by Ian Pace

 

Ian Pace is a concert pianist, musicologist, Reader in Music and Head of Department at City University, London. He studied at Chetham's School of Music, Oxford University, The Juilliard School, and Cardiff University, where his PhD was on the reconstruction of post-war West German new music during the early allied occupation, and its roots in the Weimar Republic and Third Reich. He is also a campaigner and researcher on the subject of abuse in musical education.

 

Certain musicians or pieces of music, for one reason or another, will always carry unsavoury associations. Wagner, whose music was co-opted by the Nazi party, is the obvious example. The overture of his opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was featured in a Nazi propaganda film. And there are many other examples of music that have been performed to great acclaim in societies that have conventionally been labelled fascist, and as a result will be seen as tainted.

Some of the composers also have questionable personal histories. Luigi Dallapiccola, for example, was an explicit fascist sympathiser at least early on in Mussolini’s regime. Arthur Honegger cultivated contacts with the German occupying forces in France and was viewed by some as a collaborator. George Enescu was a sympathiser of Octavian Goga, Romania’s fascist and fundamentalist anti-semite prime minister between 1937-38 (and who had proposed Enescu for election to the Romanian Academy in 1933), and conducted special German nationalist concerts.

But to simply label these composers' music as “fascist” is too easy, and certainly simplistic. Some pieces have found favour in markedly non-fascistic social contexts, some strongly resemble other work produced in other types of societies or by anti-fascist or communist composers. Other composers had explicit fascist sympathies (such as Webern, who praised Mein Kampf and wrote to a friend in 1940 of his dream of a German Empire which would stretch to the Pacific, or Stravinsky), but found their work denounced or even censored by fascist politicians.

Enter Donald Trump

The “fascist music” argument reared its ugly head most recently in a Slate article in which Brian Wise argued for a fascist reading of Donald Trump’s appropriation at political rallies of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma”, an aria from the opera Turandot. The article exposes all the flaws in a too-easy labelling of certain composers or musical pieces as “fascist” and therefore unsavoury. It does so by conflating an enormous and disparate set of links and connotations into an ugly – and untenable – whole.

Part of Wise’s argument is biographical, and there’s not much to fault here. Puccini’s expression of qualified sympathy for Mussolini soon after the 1922 March on Rome is clearly documented, as is the fact that he met the dictator at least once before the composer’s death in November 1924. He also reluctantly accepted honorary Fascist Party membership and was made a senator of the realm in September 1924, a position he had coveted since before Mussolini’s assumption of power. Turandot, incomplete at the time of Puccini’s death, had a hugely successful premiere in Milan in 1926 that was attended by Mussolini, though subsequent performances were not frequent, and it would not enter the standard repertoire until a later period.

Loose associations

But Wise then quotes some very generalised statements from musicologists to back up his argument.

First there’s Arman Schwartz, who has compared the opera’s setting to Rome in the 1920s. Schwartz also identifies the relationship between virile hero and heroine to be conquered as fascistic, as well as the irrational and violent crowd. The first of these points is plausible, but the second and third are found in numerous earlier 19th century operas (such as Bizet’s Carmen, Wagner’s Siegfried, Halévy’s La Juive, Donizetti’s Les Martyrs or Verdi’s Don Carlos, to name just a few). Turandot hardly stands out on this front.

Wise then cites musicologist Alexandra Wilson’s argument that the opera’s combination of appeals to modernity and tradition makes it a “fascist emblem”. But this, too, could be said of a huge amount of music from Mozart to Brahms and well beyond.

Then there’s conductor Leon Botstein’s claim that this “regressive, narcotic, illusionistic music” provided no resistance to the regime. But evidence of musical works ever providing meaningful and productive resistance to dictatorial regimes is extremely slim. Furthermore, Botstein’s musical characterisation of Puccini’s music could equally apply to of the work of Debussy, Ravel, Szymanowski, Scriabin, Richard Strauss, Florent Schmitt and many, many others.

Wise then cites Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, who alludes to high decibel levels and themes of domination and colonialism. Once again, these are both frequent and generic aspects of operatic traditions and such classification would make huge swathes of popular music fascist.

Aria to opera

As the above litany of references makes clear, such all-encompassing fascistic interpretations of this opera are problematic, as the most intelligent recent commentator on music in fascist Italy, Ben Earle, has shown.

And all of this ignores the fact that Trump only appropriates one brief aria from this opera, and another from the earlier Gianni Schicci. Ironically, both are actually relatively conventional compared to other examples of Puccini’s volatile music. Notwithstanding their obvious passionate and sensuous qualities, the vocal writing is generally much smoother and steadier than in other more hysterical numbers or other musical passages. To read fascist implications into these arias on the basis of the rest of the operas makes little sense when there is a high likelihood that neither Trump nor his supporters will be aware of them in any case.

Research into the relationship between a long tradition of Western art, music (and for that matter, popular and non-Western musics) and fascism is vital, though far from easy. Scholars have looked in the context of fascism at musical biography, work, reception, instrumentalisation, institutions, music teaching, journalism and scholarship with subtlety and nuance. Most cogently argue that the relationship between these things and their social context is complex and multifaceted.

There may indeed be fascist dimensions to Wagner, Trump’s music preferences, or even the 1990 World Cup (where Nessun dorma also played a central role), but it requires a good deal of rigorous investigation to demonstrate this. As such, to condemn Nessun dorma on such flimsy grounds is a lazy approach to investigation of the disturbing Trump phenomenon.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Nov 13th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Classical guitarist Jose Manuel Lezcano breaks new ground with his first solo CD,  “Homage: Spain & Latin America”. He combines two Scarlatti sonatas and his adaptation of works by Maurice Ravel, Bill Evans and the great Paraguayan guitar virtuoso Augustin Barrios. Mood and tempo jump from the contemplative to familiar classics to dance to jazz. I found the CD so captivating I played it in loop for hours." ----- "Twice a Grammy-awarded  composer and guitarist, Lezcano lives in retirement in the U.S. northeast and teaches at Keene State College in New Hampshire where he holds the title emeritus professor."
Sep 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "When I try to understand my life as a critic in the dazzling world of piano music, I am at a loss. We have inherited so much over 300 years that I feel overwhelmed. There is no obvious focal point. What is at the heart of piano world? -- Personally I could not make it through the day without the stimulation of piano performance. My home resounds with music all my waking hours, constantly renewed from the thousand-odd CDs I have accumulated." ----- Picture: The author, Michael Johnson.
Jun 21st 2022
EXTRACT: "This novel is nothing short of a Tolstoian epic.   Author Lawson, a true polymath, is up to the task. He is an accomplished pianist and composer, retired archdeacon of the Church of England and author of some 14 books." ---- "Rounding out his career, Lawson is also a trained psychotherapist who has worked with several pianists, including child prodigies." ----- "I know of no other writer who can draw on such a varied and pertinent background and weave them into a single tale."
Dec 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "......, I read all the time in Russian, French and English. Right now I’m finishing the new book of my favorite Russian author Ludmila Ulitzkaya. Of course, I have read most of classics to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Pushkin, Akhmatova. I think it’s important to read Russian literature to understand Russian music, to understand the suffering and the spirituality of the characters of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Bulgakov in order to feel the depth of Rachmaninov’s music. I also read a lot in French and English. For me, it’s important to go from contemporary writers to the classics and back."
Dec 9th 2021
EXTRACT: Q: "Your new CD is a turning point. Why is it so important to you?" ----- "A: It is all Brahms. I really wanted to do it this way. It is very important to me because it is my first solo CD. I’ve been spending a lot of my time working on Brahms, especially the Brahms Paganini Variations and the Handel Variations. I almost grew up with them. "
Dec 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "A musical theatre legend has died. Stephen Sondheim, the greatest composer-lyricist of his generation, passed away on November 26 at the age of 91. His dramatic genius combined a rare blend of elements, that of an astonishingly versatile and sophisticated composer, and an incredibly witty wordsmith. His extraordinary output includes a staggering 16 musicals as composer and lyricist, a further three as lyricist alone, as well as four musical revues featuring compilations of hit songs from his shows."
Nov 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "Most important  to him, he explained, is maintaining his individuality in interpretation. He feels it was a mistake in his past to pick and choose bits from different teachers and combine them into a finished performance. He has decided to create his own perspective, and 'go for it'."
Oct 28th 2021
EXTRACTS: "The 16th International Beethoven Piano Competition came to a rousing climax in Vienna on 21 October with first prizewinner Aris Alexander Blettenberg’s lyrical rendering of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No 1." ---- "The other two finalists, Austrian Philipp Scheucher and South Korean Dasol Kim, played Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Concertos respectively."
Sep 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "Top prize, worth 22,000 euros, went to Jae Hong Park, a flamboyant, emotive player with and a firm grasp of Rachmaninov, and second prize went to Do-Hyun Kim, who played Prokofiev’s second concerto with some considerable verve. Placing third was Lukas Sternath, a young Austrian who performed Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto with cool charm -- the opposite of Park’s style."
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: " .....I have to give everything in these concerts,.... "
Jun 26th 2021
EXTRACT: What do you want to be known as? --- As “Stewart Goodyear, composer and pianist”.
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: Denis Pascal, founder of the French Trio Pascal: ".....recording studios began working again. We recorded our Schubert trios at the end of September. And musicians everywhere are finding that the crisis allows time for a certain introspection and questioning into the way music is performed. Music will play a much more important role after the crisis."
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACTS: "She began her piano training rather late in life – age 8." ..... "I want to contribute a sense of joy by discovering atypical works that might surprise an educated public. I have great experience and am inclined to share them with anyone who can appreciate them, or as André Gide wrote, anyone “who has an open mind”."
Jan 31st 2021
EXTRACTS: "A new recording of Franz Liszt’s piano compositions presents ten carefully balanced pieces in a double-CD album aptly titled Between Light and Darkness, launched by Piano Classics. The pianist, the veteran French virtuoso Vincent Larderet .... Larderet opens his CD with a moving exploration of Après une Lecture de Dante with a tortured lyricism unmatched by many of his contemporaries who play it. I was stunned the first time I heard his performance. In our interview below, he describes lyricism as “an essential facet of my musical conception. The piano must be able to sing like the human voice.” "
Jan 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "Jack Kohl is an American pianist and writer with three novels and two essay collections to his credit. His new collection, From the Windows of Diligence: Essays from a Standing Pianist, has drawn critical acclaim in the U.S. and Europe. In these reflections, he examines the power of ‘hack pianism’, the metaphor of running vs. the piano, and the ‘hidden gift’ of the Covid virus pandemic on solitary practicing. Robert Beattie spoke to Kohl about his music training and how he made the transition from pianist to author. (This edited interview was first published on www.Seenandheard-international.com and is reproduced with permission.)"
Dec 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Freedom in Beethoven’s music takes many, frequently overlapping forms. There is heroic freedom in the Eroica (1803), freedom from political oppression in the Egmont Overture (1810), artistic freedom and innovation in the Ninth Symphony (1824). Today, Beethoven’s music remains deeply connected with a true humanism, which has the principles of freedom and self-determination at its heart. The composer’s music grew out of the age of European Enlightenment, which located human reason and the self at the centre of knowledge......"
Nov 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "One of the most durable tales in Western civilization – the legend of Faust – is brilliantly rendered in a piano adaptation, performed this week by the multi-talented Australian musician of German/Slovenian parentage, Ashley Hribar. A new recording of the music, now available digitally, will appear as a CD in the New Year. Hribar calls his recording, “Faust: A Mortal’s Tale”.  It is a personal musical reflection on the Faust story, loosely based on the 1926 silent film by Wilhelm Friedrich Murnau."
Aug 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "For 60 minutes, my mind was clear, the air was clean and the sound heavenly. It was my honor and privilege to have been there."
Jul 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "Scarlatti sonatas are enjoying a popular surge in recent years, tempting pianists –Europeans, Americans, Asians -- to try to master their broad range. Margherita has some advice: “Don’t be afraid to slow down, to speed up, to play the truly singable melodies with a quasi-Romantic feeling.” "