Music and politics have always had an interesting relationship. Political leaders have shaped music history for hundreds of years, for better or worse. In the case of the former, we have the Emperor Franz Josef I, the Esterhazy family and King Ludwig II; in the case of the latter, we may look to Stalin and Hitler. And sometimes we see a more complex picture, as in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, which both oppressed (dictating rules of form and harmony) and empowered (the masses of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.)
The artist has always toed the line, for various reasons, between being politically active and apolitical. Sometimes it is a game of diplomacy, such as the case of Mozart and the bishops of Salzburg; other times, it is a case of reckless abandon, as in the case of Wagner’s involvement with the revolution of 1848. But we have a rich legacy of artists whose compliance with or defiance of political powers resulted in the creation of magnificent works—works whose legacies have shaped our culture and societies in profound ways.
With the recent passing of laws regarding homosexuality in Russia, music has been thrust into the spotlight time and time again. Perhaps most notably, we have seen protests in New York City, both at the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall. Commentary has not been in short supply regarding these events, with passionate voices crying out on both sides of the issue.
In the center of the debate, at least on this side of the Atlantic, are two living legends of the opera house and concert hall, both of whom happen to be Russian. In the case of one, protest has been met with silence; in the case of the other, a weak protest was issued, concluding with a very disturbing sentence: “In my next life, when I will be a politician, we talk!”
It is important to note that this has become much more than an issue of gay rights. The problem has gone far beyond a question of modern ethics and the role of government in the bedroom. No, this is a question of human rights, for when people are being persecuted and even hunted down, as a group, in an organized and official manner, there can be no silence, no idle talk. But to hear that from an artist is especially egregious.
The role of the artist in society is to be a good and productive citizen. There are other perks, of course: fame and fortune, celebrity and privilege, adulation and acknowledgement on a grand scale. But the artist has a unique and powerful voice. Politicians? A politician has tremendous power over the flesh and fortunes of men. But when it comes to matters of the spirit, ignorance is too often the domain of the statesman—and impotence. How may they address that over which they have no power, the immortal human spirit, when power is all they know and desire? Yes, they are rendered impotent! The value of money will change; empires and nations will rise and fall, wars will be won and lost, borders drawn and redrawn, power gained and lost, parties created and disbanded. This is the fate of the politician, no matter how skilled or even how altruistic. But the artist will always remain; the voice of the artist will be the voice of the people, the manifestation of will, the link between the physical and metaphysical.
I can appreciate that these two artists may have concerns for themselves and their families and certainly hope that they may remain safe and healthy. But excuses cannot be made. We have seen too many ‘issues of politics’ become the genesis of unimaginable tragedy. Jim Crow and Nuremburg laws were once ‘just’ public policy, after all; how can we stand idly by?
The artist must be an idealist. Everything else, whether a tribulation or a benefit, is merely a distraction. We are called to serve our fellow man. And we have plenty of examples. Perhaps most fittingly, we may examine Shostakovich. Arguably the most honest and brave artist of the last century, Shostakovich defied official orders time and time again, quite literally risking life and limb to compose music which was honest. Yes, he was patriotic; yes, he served his country and culture. But he knew he had an even higher calling: he served human-kind. And for that, he was willing to risk everything, time after time.
I am reminded of a quote from the wonderful movie ‘A Few Good Men.’ As he is cross examined on the stand, the antagonist defends his honor—and, in fact, honor in general. “We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punch line,” he says. In the world of art, we use many similar words: ideals, talent, genius, virtuosity, faithfulness and, yes, honor. We use them over and over and over again until they very nearly lose their meaning, their potency and their value. They become…nearly a punch line, or at worst, a cliché. The worst part of a cliché is that the value of an ideal becomes muddled or lost. It is time for us to stop speaking and acting in cliché; it is time to stop being casual with language and ideals, time to stop making excuses. The artist must be the voice of the people. Ideals, genius, fidelity, loyalty, and honor: these are our duty.