There’s a myth, in the popular imagination, that classical music is higher, better and more exalted than much of the rest of life. This extends to the idea that classical musicians must be on the side of the good and true and right. And when they fail to deliver on this promise, reactions range from confusion to condemnation.
In February on CNN, Fareed Zakaria summed up this attitude succinctly, if unwittingly, in an interview with the conductor Valery Gergiev, a strong supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin who has since come out in favor of Putin’s actions in Ukraine and Crimea. “A lot of people have criticized your relationship with Vladimir Putin,” Zakaria said. “They see Putin as a strong man, as somebody who has not been good for human rights. And they view you as an artist, as somebody who should stand up for human rights.” Is that a given? It seems, to many, that it is.
A case study at the moment is Gustavo Dudamel, who will conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday night. Dudamel, for many, is a poster boy for what classical music can mean to young people. He’s the most prominent product of Venezuela’s program El Sistema, which, in the nutshell version, takes children from the barrios and places musical instruments in their hands and teaches them the benefits of hard work and collaboration — social lessons, as well as musical ones. Dudamel’s tremendous gifts and resulting stardom, which began at the head of El Sistema’s top orchestra, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, and continues as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has brought increased international attention for El Sistema, including a number of attempts to emulate it with similar programs, from Los Angeles to Baltimore.
Now Venezuela is being rocked by waves of public protest against a government that has responded with military violence — a government that has also presided over a sudden lack of basic material needs for its population and one of the highest inflation rates in the world. Dudamel, meanwhile, continues to conduct there, and in February led the Bolívar orchestra in a concert the day after a particularly violent protest. This led the pianist Gabriela Montero, who grew up in Venezuela — and performed with an early incarnation of the Bolívar orchestra, as well as receiving a scholarship from the Venezuelan government — but has lived in the United States for much of her teen and adult life, to write an open letter to Dudamel and El Sistema’s founder, José Antonio Abreu (who conducted her debut), saying that El Sistema’s leaders had “a moral duty to SPEAK UP and risk whatever is necessary in order to stand up against this dictatorship that we are now suppressed by.”
The letter was widely circulated on social media and reprinted, and Dudamel quickly responded with a short statement of his own, concluding, “Our music represents the universal language of peace; therefore, we lament yesterday’s events. With our music, and with our instruments in hand, we declare an absolute no to violence and an resounding yes to peace.” He did not, however, specifically reference the Maduro regime, or any of the six previous administrations that have funded El Sistema over the years of the program’s existence, though he subsequently wrote a longer response to the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, saying, among other things, “I cannot allow El Sistema to become a casualty of politics.”
Meanwhile, Gergiev, having responded to protests against Russia’s new law against homosexuality, has not equivocated about the situation in Ukraine. “We are now hearing openly fascist slogans,” he said in a Russian magazine interview. “They are coming in Ukraine from people who have almost complete control over the country.” He said that the Cold War was alive and well, and that the West should not meddle; he subsequently signed his name, along with 19 other cultural luminaries, in support of Vladimir Putin (who awarded him a Hero of Labor award last year), calling him “President of Russia and of Ukraine-Crimea.”
Dudamel has stopped short of taking a political stand; Gergiev, to Western eyes, has taken the wrong one. How much condemnation do they deserve? And is it reasonable to expect them to take a stand at all? Do we have the same expectations of leading figures in other fields — athletes, actors, dancers, poets?
The Mozart Effect has been debunked; listening to Mozart does not, in fact, make kids smarter. But the idea that classical music is good, and good for you, remains. Indeed, the fable we’ve built up for ourselves about classical music’s goodness may hinder the dissemination of certain kinds of contemporary classical music. If classical music, with its rules of tonality and harmony and its set, classical forms of concerto, symphony and quartet, is perceived, even unconsciously, as a moral entity, people may react negatively when music posing under the classical mantle doesn’t express the kind of “good” they expect from it.
And from here, it is but a short step to the idea that classical music is morally superior — that it makes you not only better, but better than others.
But this is a black-and-white view of an art form whose richness lies in its potential for ambiguity (think of the many different ways individual keyboard players have inflected, say, the aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations). It also fails to deal with the cases in which classical music fails to meet its ideals, the cases in which classical musicians are actually found to be morally lacking. Richard Wagner, with his blatant anti-Semitism and his powerful and on some level humane operas, is a case in point: Some people feel his music should not be performed. Revelations in a recently-published French book, “Music in Paris Under the Occupation,” of the degree to which the pianist Alfred Cortot, who supported the Nazi occupation of France and was the commissioner for fine arts under the Vichy government, showed anti-Semitic tendencies throughout his life may tarnish posterity’s love for his beautiful playing.
The question is how far one’s life decisions affect one’s art, and how much great artists have a responsibility to speak out and do right. Some musicians use their renown as a platform for addressing social issues — think, for instance, of Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up of young Israel and Arab musicians. Evgeny Kissin recently made a public vow of allegiance to his own Judaism by taking Israeli citizenship and performing, in Washington, a program of music by little-known Jewish composers interspersed with readings of Yiddish poetry.
Posterity is by no means as harsh as contemporary public judgment, tending to vilify where it’s easy — the soprano Germaine Lubin effectively lost her career thanks to her willingness to perform for the Nazis in occupied France — and overlook where it’s convenient (Herbert von Karajan). But we certainly celebrate some musicians for having made morally “right” choices. The conductor Kurt Masur worked successfully and closely with the East German administration for years, but in 1989, during the protests in Leipzig, he stepped up with a public call for nonviolence that helped keep events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall peaceful — and earned himself the directorship of the New York Philharmonic in part as a result of his newfound prominence as a spokesman for freedom.
But the political stage is not a natural platform for every artist, and artists who decide to enter it may find their messages subverted in ways they didn’t intend.
Another case is the New York Philharmonic performing under Lorin Maazel in North Korea in 2008 - a noble act of cultural diplomacy, or collusion with a bad regime?
And if a musician chooses not to take a stand, he or she is often automatically charged with collaboration in any case. Gergiev, through his support of a challenging regime, may have in some sense “deserved” the protests at some of his concerts in 2013 (though this was not a reaction many Soviet artists got when they performed in the West at the height of the Cold War, sent by an even more suspect government). But one wonders how far the Jerusalem Quartet and Israel Philharmonic, which were protested at concerts in London in 2010 and 2011, were known to unilaterally support the actions of the Israeli government.
Dudamel’s situation is far from clear cut. Speaking out against the government that funds the programs he supports — if he were inclined to do so — could jeopardize their future. And would that be, morally speaking, a better choice than making a vague statement about peace and nonviolence and continuing to be involved with a program that does good for thousands of young people? For some, his choice may represent collusion and taint his music-making; for others, it’s a clear example of putting the music, and its associated power of social good, first. We haven’t figured out the answers to our moral dilemmas about Wagner yet, so we are hardly likely to solve them about a living conductor. But since the people who raise such questions, above all the media, tend to eliminate nuance in their presentation of the issues, Dudamel is likely to come in for quite a bit more heat about Venezuela, rightly or wrongly, before the undeniably intolerable situation there comes to whatever end it manages, finally, to find.
at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday night at 8.
Portions of this article were adapted from a keynote address given in February to the annual conference of the Humanities Education and Research Association.