Intense, Beautiful, Devoted: Classical music has long felt the Bern(stein) to speak in political tones

By Mark Thomas Ketterson

There was a stunning moment in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Celebrating 100 Years of Bernstein” gala this season. Kate Baldwin, on a brief hiatus from her Tony Award–nominated run in Broadway’s revival of Hello Dolly!, took the stage and delivered an ineffably moving rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s Vietnam-era protest song “So Pretty.” This affecting piece, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, was first heard in 1968 at the Broadway for Peace fundraiser co-hosted by Bernstein and Paul Newman. It was performed then by Barbra Streisand with the composer himself at the piano. The song tells of a land far away with golden temples and pretty people with shining hair—who we are told “must die for peace.” The text concludes with “But they’re so pretty, so pretty. / I don’t understand.”

The song is quintessential Bernstein, who has been described as a singular genius who also understood that art is inherently political. Bernstein’s social convictions wove throughout his work like a leitmotif, whether in the form of direct dissent as in “So Pretty” or as subtle indictment of American culture found in another of his works performed at Lyric that evening, the one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti.

During the New York Philharmonic’s 1959 three-week tour of Russia—the first time a Western orchestra was allowed to perform in the Soviet Union—Leonard Bernstein led Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony to thunderous acclaim, and had the opportunity to meet and shake the hand of the composer after the final concert of the tour in Moscow. Bernstein brought a fresh interpretation of the symphony, supposedly Shostakovich’s “make-good” with the government censors, to Soviet ears, revealing a previously untapped wealth of energy and joy in the score.

Bernstein’s example is particularly relevant today, as artistic voices raised in protest are increasingly met with cries to “shut up and just entertain.” The ’60s are over, we are told. People are assaulted every day already by an endless flood of opinion, from CNN to Fox to countless internet outlets, without having some performer jump into the mix. “You are nothing but marionettes to us,” bellowed one memorable, aggrieved online responder to a discussion on the matter.

“Marionettes” or no, musicians have often made their political positions known, sometimes at risk to their careers. In 2011 the London Symphony Orchestra made headlines by suspending four musicians who had put their names to a letter decrying the presence of the Israel Philharmonic at the Proms. The instrumentalists argued that while the symphony’s leadership espoused that they would “never restrict the right of its players to express themselves freely,” they had done exactly that. Cellist Steven Isserlis went on record to say he was concerned that his appearances with British orchestras would be protested due to the invasion of Iraq. Polish piano virtuoso Krystian Zimerman raised eyebrows in 2006 with an outspoken denunciation of the international policies of President George W. Bush, and again in 2009 when he announced he would no longer perform in America due to the placement of a missile defense shield in Poland. “Get your hands off my country,” he told a startled audience at Walt Disney Hall.

More recently, European pianist Igor Levit, the 2018 Gilmore Artist Award winner who returns to Ravinia on August 18 for his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto, drew attention for a statement he made before a concert in Brussels the night after the US presidential election in 2016. He prefaced his message with the fact that he was an immigrant to Germany from Russia, and that in gratitude for the opportunities presented by a united Europe, he self-identifies as a “European,” not German or Russian. Levit went on to confront the “tragedy” of the culture of fear and mistrust that had seeped into the politics of the US and Europe, resulting in the earlier “Brexit” vote and the rise of factions sowing those fears throughout France and Germany. [He would later “sneak” an encore of music from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the official anthem of the EU, into his performance at the BBC Proms.] He concluded with an entreaty for collegiality: “Listening to each other—this is civilization! The great music we are sharing creates a great bond between us and reminds us of the best that human life can create and share together. We shouldn’t wait much longer.”

Igor Levit, who returns to Ravinia on August 18, has been both an outspoken and subtle critic of international politics from his concert stage.

The inescapable fact is that music, politics, and social turbulence have long been intertwined, often with extraordinary results. This may be particularly notable with composers who, like Bernstein, create music for the theater. “Va, pensiero,” the chorus of Hebrew slaves from Giuseppe Verdi’s early opera Nabucco,so powerfully resonated with 19th-century Italian patriots during the Risorgimento movement it became an unofficial Italian national anthem and remains so today. It’s even heard in Italy at sports events. In our time, John Adams’s operas Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic have gone some distance in challenging the minds of American music lovers by providing a reflection of our own topical political history on stage, as well as in establishing minimalism as a significant form. Gregory Spears’s Fellow Travelers, which examines the “lavender scare” of the McCarthy era, has enjoyed remarkable popularity since its 2016 premiere [with direction by Kevin Newbury, who helmed the staging of Bernstein’s Mass at Ravinia on July 28]. As for symphonic repertoire, many will remember the astonishing success of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, inspired by messages written on a Gestapo wall in World War II. The Elektra–Nonesuch recording of the piece topped the charts in Britain and the USA for weeks, with sales far exceeding anything expected for a classical release. The work’s mournful theme of children separated from parents via political strife resonates with chilling relevance once again in 2018.

The fusion of music and politics clearly has the potential to ignite creativity and serve as a potent vehicle for social commentary. But can music have any healing effect on political division? Possibly so.

In commemoration of the reunification of Germany in 1989, Bernstein led an orchestra of musicians from the East and West in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, transposing the word “joy” for “freedom” in the famous final movement that set the German poet Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” to music. Bernstein, of course, also participated in chiseling away at the wall.

Music’s restorative abilities have been the subject of endless medical studies, with lower mortality rates among those who attend cultural events, sing in choirs, or make music in some other fashion repeatedly being found. More contemporary research from the University of London, however, has yielded some intriguing results about the benefits of music in building interpersonal awareness and understanding across groups. Their results suggested that musical exposure may actually heighten the capacity for empathy, as well as a strong correlation between the feeling of being affected by classical music and empirical measures of emotional intelligence. The participants in London’s study showed a greater ability to identify and reason with emotional issues, as well as less displaced aggression and bullying behavior.

A curative interface of music with politics has auspiciously exhibited itself in a celebrated series of concerts helmed by CSO music director Riccardo Muti called “Roads of Friendship.” Now in its 22nd year, this remarkable initiative, which began under the auspices of Italy’s Ravenna Festival, has brought musicians of all manner of disparate cultures together as colleagues in the service of music. The project began in 1997, while Muti was music director of Milan’s La Scala. An initial concert took place in Sarajevo, which was notoriously besieged and bombed in the early ’90s—the musicians in Sarajevo received their music to study some months in advance, after which they joined La Scala’s forces for the event. They were of different political persuasions, not to mention religions, yet friendships were formed, even without an exchanges of names.

We started the idea in Sarajevo,” said Muti, “as we were all moved and touched by the tragedy that was unfolding there. We wanted to bring a sign of brotherhood from Ravenna and realized that music would be the best way to do this. Together with over 100 Italian musicians, we traveled by military plane across the Adriatic and performed in a city that was still being destroyed by bombs. This was the start of a journey that, in the intervening years, has taken us to extraordinary places and given us the opportunity to perform with musicians from different cultures and regions. It is an annual pilgrimage that reminds us of the universality of the musical language and the common bonds between us all.”

The Roads to Friendship subsequently led to a program performed in Yerevan, Armenia, which was repeated the following day in Istanbul—it meant that despite the great history of acrimony between the two countries, an Armenian airline landed in Istanbul for the first time. Last year saw Muti’s musicians joining the Tehran Symphony Orchestra in performances of Verdi, a new musical experience for many of the Iranian musicians. On July 1 of this year, Muti united the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini and the Orchestra and Choir of the National Opera of Ukraine in a concert at Sofiskaya Square in Kiev, a program that included the Lincoln Portrait by Aaron Copland (a composer for whom American artistic identity was inseparable from the dynamics of cultural influence) narrated by the great American actor and Steppenwolf member John Malkovich.

Muti’s activities resonated with particular poignancy this past February as the maestro led a concert in West Palm Beach, FL, on the same day as the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in nearby Parkland—as tragic and, ultimately, as politically charged an event as America has experienced. He drew great applause from the assembled crowd in acknowledging the tragedy and suggesting that the world would be a better place if instead of weapons, we fought with truth and beauty—or “flowers” as he gently alluded.

“That’s all well and good for a Muti,” us regular Janes and Joes may muse. But what can we lesser mortals do? That frustration was movingly reflected in a recent post this writer saw from a young musician in a Facebook group. “Lately, I haven’t been able to shake a feeling that doing music is self-indulgent, especially in political times like these,” she wailed. “I feel ineffectual and silly.” The responses were heartening, as group members reassured her that the arts are now more important than ever; and one of most rectifying things we can do is create music or listen to and support music.

For as Bernstein once said in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, “This will be our reply to violence—to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. And with each note we will honor his spirit, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his faith in the triumph of the mind.” ▪

Mark Thomas Ketterson is the Chicago correspondent for Opera News. He has also written for the Chicago Tribune, Playbill, Chicago magazine, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.