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'Political Music' - a viable category?

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Author Topic: 'Political Music' - a viable category?  (Read 4827 times)
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« on: September 02, 2009, 11:45:40 am »

The same question has been posted by IanP on the M&S board - with a couple of interesting replies.,166.msg3245.html#msg3245

Elsewhere on M&S, the following exchange recently appeared.

from: Glorious fun said Wilfred on August 09, 2009
"Chairman Mao says: 'In the world today, culture and art and literature are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such thing as art for art's sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.' Is this really so in Red China? It is certainly not so in music of 'the world today' as we know it. And would one like music to be exclusively 'geared to definite political lines'?"

from: IanP
Certainly not. Only the Stalinist/Maoist factions of the left (which account for a large percentage of the far left in the English-speaking countries, including many who lay claim to the mantle of Trotsky) believe as much, wedded as they are to reified notions of classes and a depersonalisation of individual society members every bit as comprehensive as the attitude of a high-level manager of General Motors towards their workers (and charges of 'egocentrism' are a familiar cheap rhetorical tactic employed by these types of so-called leftists - and indeed by advocates of reified identity politics - towards so de-individualisation). Music 'geared to definite political lines' is rarely anything more than propaganda. Works commemorating the victims of Hiroshima, attempting to remember what was done at Auschwitz, piano sonatas about Vietnam, or works celebrating women's sanitation under Chairman Mao, serve little function other than to ease the conscience of some bourgeois liberal concert-goers. What progressive role they might have comes not from this cheap tactics, but from when the immanent properties of the music offers something that exceeds known meanings.

The Maoist line quoted above was associated, in England at least, with Cornelius Cardew from c.1971/2 up to (but not after) 1977.

I'm assuming that IanP's hit-list of works involve
1 - Penderecki's Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima
2 - Cardew's Vietnam Sonata
3 - Penderecki's Dies Irae (or Auschwitz Oratorio)
4 - Christian Wolff's Accompaniments

if my assumptions are correct, I'm surprised certainly at the inclusion of 1), originally entitled 8'43" and apparently opportunistically retitled after the composer heard the work. I've never really thought of that work as "political" any more than others of an In memoriam nature, but no doubt my view of what constitutes "political" in the context of composed music is considerably narrower than that of others. At worst, I suppose, such a work could viewed as "ambulance-chasing"? (to use a memorable phrase from IanP which appeared on an earlier board).

Are works "political" only when they purport to challenge or overthrow the existing status quo?
. Good point, Reiner. And how then do those works become "anything more than propaganda"?
[To declare a self-interest, I've composed works which could be said to contain a social/political dimension - indeed IanP has performed a couple of them (for which I'm eternally grateful) although I suspect he would regard one as "propaganda" (rightfully) and be dismissive of the musical approach adopted in both. But this is by the bye]
More relevantly, how do others today view works by an earlier generation of avowedly "political" composers such as as Eisler and Bush as well as less well-known contributions from the likes of Blitzstein and Schulhoff?
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