Leon Botstein
Stanford Humanities Center




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On the Power of Music || The Future of the Orchestra
The Unsung Success of Live Classical Music
|| Opera || On Conducting || The Audience
 Music, Technology, and the Public || Teaching Music || Jews in Viennese Culture
Thoughts on Music and the End of World War II || Exiles and Émigrés
Classical Music and the Great Recession || Democracy, Education, and the Arts

On the Power of Music:

That paradoxes and ironies abound in all attempts to give music its due goes probably without saying. No paradox is perhaps more painful than the inverse relationship between freedom and the experience of music. When freedom of movement and speech is either restricted or withdrawn, the importance and meaning ascribed to music seem to expand. In a world in which the freedom to act, speak, and, perhaps most importantly, consume appear to have no limits as a consequence of affluence and entitlement, music is more likely to blend unnoticed into a vast landscape of desirable goods and experiences. Music seems less essential or unique and becomes largely the province of the intimate and personal. The case for the political or civic significance of music becomes weak.


A journal devoted to music is an unlikely forum for literary judgments, and this writer makes no claim to literary expertise. Nonetheless, one of the most compelling descriptions of the power of music is contained in the novel Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (1905–1964). The context for Grossman’s excursus on the power of music was the prison camp experience. When, after finishing the manuscript in 1960, Grossman sought to have it published, the novel was, as he liked to quip, “arrested.”


Grossman, whose novel describes German death camps, Soviet prisons, work camps, prison camps, and prisoner-of-war camps, takes the opportunity midway in the novel, in the forty-fifth chapter of part two, to write an excursus on the significance of music in such camps in the most extreme conditions of incarceration, fear, and deprivation.

The passage reminded me of a story my maternal grandfather liked to tell me when I was a child eager to play and listen to music. He was an avid music lover: he spent his mornings listening to records and the radio well into his nineties. He had been in the Warsaw ghetto and ultimately ended up in a German labor camp. He recounted that the only time during the war years that he remembered crying was in the barracks of the labor camp when another prisoner, for no apparent reason, began to sing a song by Schubert.

“On the Power of Music,” Musical Quarterly, (Summer 2005) 88(2):163-166.
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The Future of the Orchestra:

The orchestra has not benefited from the ongoing decline in amateur music making. Attending concerts ought to be more like watching professional sports events. One would then go in admiration (and in search of self-improvement) to see and hear how the pros do it. One would have tried to (or still might) play one of the instruments. One might play in the local ensemble. Hearing a major orchestra would be a source of inspiration if not pleasure because one appreciates what it takes to do all of this so well.


As an item of theater, the orchestra concert did well before the sound film and television. But dazzling entertainment that is structured over time, possesses a narrative, and appeals to the visual and aural is now ubiquitous, highly varied, elegantly sophisticated, and in engaging technological forms (movies, videos, television, and computers), at prices with which the orchestra seems unable to compete.


Isaac Bashevis Singer was once asked how it felt to write in a dead language, Yiddish. His reply was that he was not too concerned, because Yiddish had been dying for over a thousand years. The orchestra is certainly in better shape than the Yiddish language, which has still yet to die. Both as a museum of the past and as a vehicle for contemporary music, it can easily play a more vital role in the future. Each of the negative circumstances that surround it economically, demographically, and artistically can be turned to its advantage. There is more to be done than has already been accomplished in every area, including performance practice, differentiation in sound, expansion of the repertoire, and changed relations with audiences.

Above all, the potential of the orchestra as a primary instrument of education directed at adults and young people has been wildly underestimated and underutilized. The riches of the existing repertoire that still awaits wide currency alone bodes well for the future of the orchestra. The first step is for managements and conductors to abandon their siege mentality and desperate search for a quick fix. They should stop yielding to the temptation to slide into crass simplification and brainless commercialism. There is nothing wrong with being popular or financially successful; the only issue is how one accomplishes those worthy goals. People are desperate for something that relieves their boredom.

“The Future of the Orchestra,” Musical Quarterly (1996) 80(2): 189-193.
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The Unsung Success of Live Classical Music:

The heralding of the demise of classical music is based on flimsy evidence. The number of concert venues, summer festivals, performing ensembles, and overall performances in classical music and opera has increased exponentially over the last four decades. There are currently nearly 400 professional orchestras in America, according to the League of American Orchestras, while thirty years ago there were 203. There are up to 500 youth orchestras, up from sixty-three in 1990. The number of orchestra concerts performed annually in the U.S. has risen 24 percent in the past decade, to 37,000. Ticket-sale income from orchestra performances grew almost 18 percent, to $608 million, between the 2004–05 and 2005–06 seasons.


So why all the hand wringing? Much of it stems from another false assumption: that classical music was once profitable, but is now failing financially. This distorted expectation is rooted in the peculiar experience of the last decades of the nineteenth century, after the rapid extension of literacy in Europe and America. Before recording became commercially viable, which occurred in 1902 when the Columbia and Victor companies joined forces and issued discs, sales of instruments (particularly the piano), concert tickets, and sheet music were thriving businesses. With the advent of recorded music — first the player piano, then the radio, the 78 rpm record, the long-playing record, and the digital CD — novel, albeit brief, opportunities for making money followed. These circumstances do not represent the broader historical norm. Classical music never held the promise that it could enlist a mass audience. From its birth as a secular and church-based art form, classical music has depended on patronage and philanthropy, not on income from sales either at the box office or in record stores.


Unprecedented easy access to the recorded treasures of classical music may have put an end to the commercial viability of recorded music, but there is a silver lining: It has inspired more people to go to live concerts. Recorded music now does what all reproductions should. It inspires the desire to experience the real thing, in real time and space.


The United States pours a great deal of money into our schools’ sports programs on the grounds that athletics offer constructive experiences useful in economic and civic life. Those arguments should extend to music. In sports we have created not a participatory culture but a Roman gladiatorial system in which most of us end up as passive spectators watching a few individuals on the playing field. Music education, meanwhile, offers an opportunity for more individuals to participate as amateurs, with fewer relegated to the stands and sidelines.


If classical music is in trouble, it is because its advocates are behaving as though it were terminally ill. To survive and flourish we need to stop playing the same repertoire in concert and in the opera. Would we run a movie theater by screening the same dozen films ad nauseam, never showing any new releases or reviving old classics? There is so much more to be listened to in the history of music; yet judging from the repertoire that has become standard, it is as if all but two rooms in a museum were closed.

“Music in Times of Economic Distress,” Musical Quarterly (2007) 90(2): 167-175.
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First published online: November 20, 2008
(A shorter version of this article appeared as
The Unsung Success of Live Classical Music
in The Wall Street Journal on October 3, 2008).


Few art forms have survived so long and been fueled so well by an almost ritual lament about times gone by. I can still remember how, in the late 1950s, the standees at the old Metropolitan Opera traded tidbits about Galli-Curci; trashed the singers on the stage, lamenting the loss of Traubel and Flagstad; and savored old 78-rpm discs and pirate recordings. It was in the line waiting for tickets at the old Met that I first discovered to what great lengths otherwise intelligent individuals will go — and what discomfort they will tolerate and what energy and delight they can muster — all in order to denounce the present, yearn for a past they themselves did not experience, and, last but not least, outwit their neighbor, armed with that special connoisseurship that comes from record collecting. Imagine singing Siegfried for over five hours only to greet a public led by mourners for Melchior. There has always been (and still remains) a contrast between the attitudes of opera lovers and the devotees of concert hall music with respect to notions of text, technique, and interpretation.

The advent, during the 1970s, of a new generation of directors and an audience addicted to the quite magical illusions of realism associated with television and film has led, thankfully, to a reversal of a single-minded focus on the great voice. With few exceptions, the minimum standard of acting quality seems to be higher. We may have shaken the last vestiges of the Wagnerian prejudice against the theatrical. We have come to realize that if an entire production is of a high order — from design to dramatic direction — modest but tasteful vocal virtues can suffice and contribute to an inspiring performance.


The appeal of opera today transcends the inherently wide accessibility of the medium. No new form of entertainment has supplanted opera. Nowhere, not even in the movie house, can such a multiplicity of events and so many evident layers of meaning be so blatantly displayed simultaneously. There is no equivalent elsewhere to the operatic ensemble and to the merger of gesture, music, words, and image that opera offers.


These oft-repeated and simplistic observations have, however, changed their meaning. Until recently we have been convinced that the movie screen and the video tape, and certainly the photograph, were potentially, if not actually, capable of documenting an external world that we accept as “real.” We have assumed a very high degree of correspondence and believability with respect to film, photography, and video. However, a virtual reality and the routine falsification of fact have damaged the aura of realism associated with modern media. Deception masked as documentation has itself become a nasty fact of life. We have arrived at a point of extreme skepticism about most claims — even those in print — concerning objectivity, reality, factuality, and representation. In reaction, perhaps, we have embraced the only traditional art form that employs, superficially, the instruments of correspondent representation — images and words — in a way that lays no claim whatsoever to surface realism.

We take enthusiastic refuge in opera, therefore, because of its unabashed artificiality. In fact, it is more real to us because it never attempts to deceive. We never merge singers with their characters; we never confuse the stage with life; we never feel taken in, manipulated and fooled the way we easily can feel in the movies, in the theater, or while watching television, or even when we read. In the opera the audience remains in complete control of its reactions and yet can be moved and stirred. When the stage becomes empty in Jenufa as the Kostelnicka leaves to drown the baby, an incomparable sense of tension, terror, and horror is palpable. Yet there has been no effort to trade on the illusion of the real.


Therefore, it is precisely the very quality of opera that Tolstoy ridiculed that recommends opera to contemporary audiences. Owing to the artificiality all opera inevitably displays (if only because people are usually singing) in its overt but transparently implausible attempt to represent action and emotion, it has become the most trustworthy, honest, effective, and magical of any of the art forms with a potential for a mass audience. It possesses an unimpeachable integrity and real connection to life.

“The Opera Revival,” Musical Quarterly (1994) 78(1): 1-8.
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On Conducting:

The making of instrumental music in the sense we associate with the modern symphony orchestra as a dialectical process of persuasion between composer and audience actually began in the eighteenth century. Both Moses Mendelssohn and the Earl of Shaftesbury, along with a host of other eighteenth-century aestheticians, understood music and its public performance as transactional events with an argument. That argument was made by performer and composer in a specific context of live music making. It was not necessarily a narrative or a story line; it was a complex, multilayered mixture of affect, logic, and, if you will, aesthetic apperception. It was at once purely musical and associationist in a so-called extra- musical sense. The score was the foundation but not the entire edifice. And there was no ideology of so-called absolute music. The social context of performance was a crucial component of the creation of meaning in particular musical experiences of performing and listening. This was the case, historically speaking, for Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. The audience’s recognition of rhetoric, gesture, and allusion went hand in hand with the aural grasp of formal strategies in composition in terms of harmonic structure and motivic development. Therefore, wit and humor, as well as the sense of longing and of the tragic, were readily communicated through instrumental music even at first hearing. Discontinuity and continuity in a composition had purposes that were not only internal to some ahistorical construct of form and to a dialogue with historical precedents in the writing of music but were related to an ambition directed at making contact with contemporary listeners and performers, both amateur and professional. This remained the case until about 1914.

However, precisely because of the contextual historical contingency of musical communication since the late eighteenth century, there have been dramatic historical changes in the assumed and actual relationship between written notation and the task of the performing musician.... Given the enormous interaction between improvisation and published composition throughout the nineteenth century and the existence of divergent and contrasting regional performance traditions, a mid-twentieth-century notion of a “correct” reading of a score viewed as a sufficient closed assemblage of instructions is simply historically ignorant nonsense when it comes to nineteenth-century music.

Even though it is all too restrictive to consider a score a text in the literary sense, the current popularity of the application of hermeneutics to music comes in handy here. No one would dare write a book today telling the reader that there are correct ways or even one right way to read The Brothers Karamazov or to analyze a painting by Anselm Feuerbach or Arnold Boecklin, two of Brahms’s favorite artists. Schoenberg may have believed that there was a right way to perform his music, but Charles Ives certainly did not. We know very well, for example, that Robert Schumann reheard his early piano music later in his life, since there are significant contrasts between earlier and later editions of “the same” music that he himself prepared.


Given the economics and realities of modern professional orchestral life, the conductor who gets up on the podium must communicate through physical gestures the shape and sound of the music as efficiently and quickly as possible. It is the physical activity of the conductor that elicits sound. Because of the impressive professionalism of orchestral players and their entirely contemporary sense of authority and significance as artists, the art of conducting demands the capacity to direct, inspire, and respond to the orchestral musician. One does not have the kind of extensive rehearsal time available a century ago, and one can no longer obtain results through the nasty, dictatorial, and humiliating strategies of the great maestros of the past. The loss of such tyrannical and abusive authority has been replaced by the ease with which it is possible to convince colleagues in the orchestra to follow an interpretation and a detailed set of instructions regarding how a performance should occur.

“On Conducting,” Musical Quarterly (1997) 81(1): 1-12.
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The Audience:

Most of our college-educated contemporaries, when they listen in public to music other than concert music, are doing something other than sitting entirely still. They are either dancing, talking, singing, or, in the case of rock concerts, are so actively engaged in their own self-expression that, as members of an audience, they create their own event and sound. They are also convinced that the “meaning” of that to which they are listening is not stable and lies not in the music itself and is certainly not limited by any authorial intentionality. Rather it is created by the context of the event and their own personal responses and associations. In the classical concert-hall tradition we offer music in spaces heavily insulated from outside sound. We create the illusion and seeming precondition of absolute silence. Coughing, fidgeting, unwrapping bon-bons, or making any other kind of noise are sacrileges, signs of ignorance — unmaskings — all interventions by an audience whose presence, except for the clapping at the end, must remain entirely inaudible. New York critics have made excoriating the audience for coughing a regular feature, and conductors have been known to stop and stare at the audience, waiting for the return of the needed silence. Somehow the same New York audience rarely coughs in a movie or in a Broadway theater. Even in a recent performance of Tristan at the Metropolitan Opera, coughing began when the star singers on stage were silent in purely orchestral passages and when there was a hiatus in the titles. Perhaps their coughing is a sign of boredom and detachment and not of a flu epidemic. But in the end, is coughing all that terrible? If we encouraged other, less irritating audible reactions in response to emotion, joy, and excitement, we might hear less coughing and be less upset.


It seems reasonable to think that, as we more easily find, retrieve, manipulate, and organize information and music on our own, through computers, and become able to generate our own sounds, we will still want to go to some public space for the purposes of sharing our experience of music with others. We may wish to meet people and off-set our own solitude and loneliness. The modern concert hall had its origins in the inn, the meeting hall, and the aristocratic ballroom and salon. Sharing food, conversation, and comfort were consistent with the listening to music.


If the public and social dimension of music are not merely necessary evils, now rendered obsolete by technology, then we must find a way to emotionalize the audience, engage it, make it active. To do so we must address our audience as it is today and not as we wish it might be or have imagined it to have been in the past. We need to find a contemporary equivalent of that which Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach described in his manual on keyboard playing from 1753, “A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved. He must of necessity feel all the affects that he hopes to evoke in his listeners: for the revealing of his own emotions will simulate a like emotion in the listener.... A pianist can best take hold of his listener’s souls through fantasies engendered in his head.” Why assume that a listener affected in this way in 2001 should or even could remain still, silent, immobile, without either uttering or making any sound or physical gesture in the act of listening. How can we allow for his or her emotions and affect to be influenced and revealed, without concealment, with the same intensity experienced and presented by the performer on stage? Clapping at the end will not suffice. New modes and opportunities for response have to be imagined and accommodated.

“The Audience,” Musical Quarterly (1999) 83(4): 479-486.
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Music, Technology, and the Public:

As lay persons, individuals feel able to judge a film without having to see it more than once. So too should it be in music. When Haydn wrote symphonies for the London audience — works that we take considerable pleasure in for their complexity and subtlety — he expected the works to win the hearts and minds of his listeners on first hearing. The re-creation of the complex and nondidactic context in which the recognition of the individual qualities of, and differences and similarities between, a Felix Weingartner symphonic poem and a Mahler symphony is desirable. And in the case of the music of, for example, Weingartner, Max von Schillings, Hans Pfitzner, and Sigmund von Hausegger, not to speak of similar aesthetic groupings in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there is much merit to hearing their music, not so much in terms of the search for the lost masterpiece but in terms of the search for the restoration of the experience of listening and reflection through music. Not every linguistic utterance or exchange we hear or read that engages the individual beyond the dimensions of mere entertainment is the work of Shakespeare, Keats, Brontë, or Woolf. But that kind of artificially rarefied selection is what has become commonplace within the conventional concert hall. The exception is the performance of a new work. Do we place the work of a contemporary artist on the same wall with a Botticelli or a Matisse or alongside a great Athenian vase?

And the musical past cannot be exhumed merely through the mechanism of the names of the composers. The conceits of aesthetic judgment that are so eloquently expressed by Adorno and that derive from a tradition of discourse within the nineteenth-century philosophic tradition have been so profoundly accepted that they have relegated music to a discrete, disconnected way of life. The best evidence of this is that music, unlike painting or literature, has only an author index. The subject index, if it exists at all, is an exclusively formalist one. Unlike a bookstore or an art museum, the retail store selling classical music is organized alphabetically by the name of the composer. In the case of opera, the arrangement is alphabetical by title. This has made intelligent browsing — tourism — impossible. There is neither a historical nor an otherwise cross-referenceable framework for the listener to gain access to the treasures of recorded music that neighbor the single familiar item.


The concert stage, therefore, can be the impetus and the laboratory for the documentation and reproduction of the music of the past through modern technology. The reverse is now the case. The concert stage is a pale imitation of studio-recorded and meticulously edited versions of the overplayed repertoire. Because of technology, the ideal of listening and the redemptive encounter with music favored by Adorno might be achievable again by listening alone, even without any reference to the notated musical text. There must be, however, a fundamental renewal and reconceptualization of concert life.

At the root of the necessity to do this is, of course, the noble desire for a reversal in the decline of interest not only in the music of the past but in music written today by composers within the European and American concert traditions. We cannot hope for a return to the kind of musical literacy and amateurism that flourished a century ago. The vigorous restoration of the past within renewed rituals of public music making and the extension of private access through modern technology in the home are the keys to the revival of interest in the music of the future.

“Music, Technology, and the Public,” Musical Quarterly (1994) 78(2): 177-188.
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Teaching Music:

If one takes as a starting point the asking of questions about what students already have in their ears, as it were, and the ways in which they have lived with and without music and what their tastes and predilections are, one may discover that — precisely because of the power of mass popular culture — there is much more uniformity than there is difference, for all the talk about diversity. Shared generational taste is an impressive phenomenon. First-year students often regard with disbelief and contempt the popular taste of college seniors. If one begins with an analysis of popular culture and focuses on generational analysis that cuts across the kinds of differences we like to talk about in the academy, then we can create a counter-intuitive consequence in a curriculum. The much-maligned canon — the old-fashioned traditions supported by the so-called Eurocentric hegemony — may turn out to be the object of affection, enthusiasm, and love, for many different reasons and in many ways by succeeding generations.

Instead of balkanizing music and labeling it with essentialist definitions, those apparently discredited claims to universality on the part of music suddenly might become redeemable. It may turn out that what characterizes all great music from disparate sources is its susceptibility to patterns of appropriation by individuals and generations that have nothing to do with the historical origins of the music or the ideological intentions of its composers, traditional performers, or listeners. By commencing not with the extramusical characteristics of our students but with their habits of listening, their musical instincts, and the qualities of their ears and voices, we might elude the nasty political arguments that now reign among our colleagues and find a different mode of constructing the ideological and political significance of music making.

But in order to do that, we have to keep our minds open to the possibility that the ideology that we rediscover may be uncomfortably reminiscent. It may raise once again the possibility that there are multiple musics and aesthetics that are inclusive without being vacuous. Perhaps music communicates differently than art or language and defies any single determinist theory of historical contingency. In fact, music might be a humane and humanistic art that can transcend time and place as no other form of life can. Like DNA, it spells universality, commonality, and radical individuality at one and the same time without contradiction.

“Teaching Music,” Musical Quarterly (1996) 80(3): 385-391.
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Jews in Viennese Culture:

The Jews who came to Vienna from the provinces, particularly from essentially non-German-speaking (or partially so) Eastern regions (e.g., Galicia, Hungary, Moravia, and Bukowina), sought to lose provincial trappings, including Yiddish, a Yiddish accent, shtetl habits, and traditional styles of life.  This ambition was itself a driving force in the creation of the new, supranational Viennese ideal of the cosmopolitan urban individual.  The same motivation applied to the Sephardic Jewish community, with its Ladino traditions centered at the Zirkusgasse Turkish Synagogue in Leopoldstadt, with which Alexander Zemlinsky and the Galimir family were associated.  The pursuit of learning, including science, the acquisition of a pure literary language, and the command of the arts became weapons in a seventy-year struggle to create a sense of place and meaning for incipient outsiders in a new urban world.  For Jews it was music and letters – but music most of all – not art or architecture that held the greatest promise.  Music was an art that went beyond the representational, the descriptive, and the linguistic; its prestige, derived from Romanticism, rested on its unrivaled claim to universality.  Hence its significance not only among those destined for a career in music, but for cultured Viennese Jews in general, including writers such as Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig, and patrons such as the Gomperz, the Wertheimstein, and the Wittgenstein families.  In 1909 Bruno Walter gave a performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony in Vienna.  The concert, organized by Hugo Knepler, the distinguished concert agent, had been made possible by fifteen guarantors.  The concert was not a financial success.  A list included in Knepler’s letter to the critic Josef Reitler (one of the sponsors) of November 11, 1909, which regretted his inability to return the investment, revealed that of the fifteen sponsors, twelve were Viennese Jews of diverse occupations.


[T]he Jews of Vienna, in their diverse and complex reactions to the challenge of becoming Viennese in the years between 1867 and 1938, helped created and extend the myth of Vienna’s unique musicality.  They made an indelible contribution to the precise civic self-image of Vienna as the city of music par excellence on all fronts, popular and classical, that flourished during the late nineteenth century and has remained intact ever since.  Rather than being considered outsiders who corrupted a healthy local pre-modern tradition, Jews were a driving force in creating the most successful illusion of a shared cultural center:  a particular Viennese musical sensibility and tradition.  It was by helping to shape a unifying cultural consensus for a rapidly changing metropolis – through musical culture – that generations of new Jewish arrivals to the city could cease being viewed as outsiders and not think of themselves as marginal.  This fact was not lost on the older, long-standing elite Viennese Jewish community that viewed the many Eastern Jewish arrivistes with ambivalence.


The role of the Jews in the formation of Vienna’s cultural identity is a reminder not of failure or delusion, but of the power of culture to fashion in modern urban life a civilization in which difference is not erased but inspires a creative transformation.  That Vienna’s history turned to tragedy does not suggest inevitability.  If there is a lesson to be learned, it is not that culture, and music in particular, are weak forces in shaping history, but that they need to be made stronger rather than abandoned.

“Locating Jews in the Musical Life of Vienna,” in Vienna:  Jews and the City of Music 1870-1938,
edited by Leon Botstein and Werner Hanak (Annandale-on-Hudson: Bard College, 2004), pp. 17-20.

Thoughts on Music and the End of World War II:

The war shattered any remnant of the comfortable, bourgeois nineteenth-century illusion that music and music making were immune as items of an elevated aesthetic culture. The tale of one survivor makes this point all too clearly. During one of the raids in the Warsaw ghetto organized to round up people for the camps, the SS officer in charge noticed in the house being cleared of people an upright piano. A playable piano in the ghetto was a rarity. Knowing full well that there were still people hiding in closets — women and children were the first to be taken, and there were more people than could be loaded up, leaving desperate and terrified next of kin in the house — this officer ordered his men to go on ahead of him. He proceeded to unbutton his collar and to sit down at the piano. An eye- witness tells of watching through a crack in a closet door how this officer with a beatific smile played, for nearly one hour, Beethoven, Schumann, and Chopin elegantly and movingly. The paradox presented by radical evil merged nearly simultaneously with the display of a refined taste and understanding for music was never more clearly brought out than during the Second World War.


The conceit that suffered the most as a result of the intimate relationship among musical life, Nazi ideology, and the war effort was the notion that music is by definition some sort of constructive universal language that transcends politics in a helpful, humanistic manner. One thinks of the gesture made by Yehudi Menuhin right after the war ended — his decision to perform with Furtwangler — with ambivalence. Although Furtwangler’s behavior was not as bad as some others’, and despite the fact that forgiveness in any event is not easily to be dismissed, Menuhin’s reflexive assertions of the universality of music as a factor of reconciliation after 1945 have assumed a peculiarly hollow ring despite such grandiose gestures. Even more chilling perhaps is the postwar popularity and success of German and Austrian musicians who had more to hide than Furtwangler with the record-collecting and concert-going public, which in other circumstances would be horrified by an unwitting or tacit condoning of known but unacknowledged participation in the horrors of Naziism. The appearance of innocence in the normalcy and presumed neutrality of musical life during and after the war is strikingly seductive. That alone recommends it as an object for scrutiny.


In the category of paradoxes and ironies were the conflicting uses and appropriations of the music of Beethoven during the war years. His music figured significantly in the program performed by Jews for Jews in the Jüdischer Kulturbund between the years 1933 and 1941. The opening of the Fifth Symphony became the Allied motto for victory. At the same time, the Ninth Symphony was used repeatedly by the Nazis in staged public propaganda events. Along the same lines, the 1941 celebrations in Vienna that marked the 150th anniversary of the death of Mozart were organized around an explicit agenda: to link Mozart and his achievement to claims of Aryan cultural superiority. While this was going on, Berthold Goldschmidt, the German Jewish composer and conductor (alive today at the age of ninety-three), whose compositions are now experiencing a long-overdue rehearing, was programming Mozart and Beethoven in London on the BBC in radio transmissions directed to the continent as part of the Allied anti- Nazi propaganda effort.


Composers like Béla Bartók and Bohuslav Martinu who came from small nations that were not major combatants but rather minor players and subject nations — such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia — sought to use elements of their folk and national heritages in their music in a way distinct from parallel appropriations of these same elements by local fascist and chauvinist politics. In Bartók’s case the rapid move to the right in Hungarian politics during the 1930s threatened to change the cultural and political significance of decades of serious scholarship on Hungarian folk music. Bartók’s strident anticosmopolitanism and his glorification of the uncorrupted peasant had fueled his determination to document a true Hungarian folk tradition. Yet such sentiments could easily become misunderstood — a potential that Bartók grasped all too well in 1940.

In the victorious western nations — particularly the United States — as the memory of the linkage between politics and musical aesthetics characteristic of the war faded, so did the critical postwar allegiance to the ideal of an international musical modernism in the spirit of Schoenberg’s achievement as an aspect of progressive politics. The unfortunate rarity with which one encounters the music of Roger Sessions in concert programs reminds us of the extent to which modernism and progressive politics have fallen in parallel fashion into relative disrepute since mid-century.

These cursory reflections on the relationship between music and politics of World War II and the years surrounding it merely point to the necessity for musicians and scholars to continue to confront a period of modern history whose significance and challenges for our lives have not been exhausted. What is perhaps most striking about the music written during the war, particularly by composers who were victims or who fled Europe or who were inspired by the struggle against radical evil, is that all of it sought to transcend the limits of the professional ambition to write music as art or mere entertainment. If there ever was a time when musical expression seemed essential and when those much- abused words “authenticity” and “commitment” were audible in music, it was during the war. Fifty years after, why do some works written in those years still speak to us and others not, despite a shared and attractive noble purpose? What do our shifting impressions of the music from that period tell us about the nature of music, ourselves, and the boundaries between the verbal and the musical; about the differences and variable interrelationships over time between musical thoughts and experiences on the one hand and the language of ideas, human actions, and their justifications on the other? How does music, through performance and listening, assume and then divest itself of political and cultural meaning over time, and what can we make of the process of loss of memory and reconstruction that emerges in the writing of history and criticism?

“After Fifty Years: Thoughts on Music and the End of World War II,” Musical Quarterly (1995) 79(2): 225-230.
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Exiles and Émigrés:

When one surveys the enormous research and scholarship in the past quarter century on the impact of Fascism, the Holocaust, and World War II on the lives of musicians, musical communities, and musical cultures, and then factors in the voluminous writing on exiles, emigration, and collaboration, one is struck by the enormity of the dislocation for those fortunate enough to survive.1 Scholarship on victims has emphasized their adjustment in the context of exile and emigration and the varying trajectories of their careers, the disappearance of careers, and the emergence of new careers. Scholarship on the nonvictims, primarily Germans and Italians, and the cultural elites of conquered and occupied nations, has emphasized issues of collaboration and inner emigration.

In both cases, the forced dislocations created strange opportunities possible only in the context of the massive disruption characteristic of war. For the victims lucky enough to escape Europe before 1939, fleeing involved leaving jobs, possessions, and acquaintances behind and oftentimes switching languages, despite the vitality of émigré language communities well into the 1960s in places such as the United States, England, Brazil, and Israel. What occurred was an abrupt erasure of their lives. That erasure was made more powerful by the relative, if not complete, absence of contemporaries in new surroundings who might bear witness to their previous histories.


Before returning to the question of exiles and émigrés, and the way the age of the individual and the status of his or her career influenced patterns of acculturation, adaptation, formation of cultural attitudes, and career development, particularly in the context of the United States and Israel, a word needs to be said about the consequences of the war and the enormity of collective violence on those who remained at home but were not victims. In these cases, the discontinuities took on a different aspect. For the émigrés and exiles, documentation and personal testimony — the existence of witnesses — were marginal factors. For those who remained at home, there was certainly a toll taken on the number of witnesses and a fair amount of destruction of evidence. That destruction of evidence resulted in part from the ravages of war, particularly bombing and conquest on both Eastern and Western Fronts. But there was the additional factor of the immediate postwar years, the early years of the Cold War, when one’s immediate past could be rewritten.


Even so, the historical time period from 1933 to 1945, shared both by the émigrés and the exiles on one hand, and by those who had no difficulty remaining at home on the other, provided a common opportunity to manage, if not manipulate, the story of their lives as told to others, particularly a younger generation. Discretion, silence, and concealment may have been the norm for those who remained in place, but émigrés were universally and unavoidably required to explain themselves, often in a new language, to the world to which they had been exiled or had immigrated, no matter their age or station. If there were exceptions, they were only the very famous and usually older émigrés and exiles.

“Reinventing Life and Career: The Perils of Emigration,” Musical Quarterly (2007) 90(3-4): 309-318
Available to the Stanford community and other subscribers at

Classical Music and the Great Recession:

...[T]he criterion for the worth of classical music should not be its capacity to draw a mass audience. Neither should it be the capacity of practices of music making to be financially self-supporting. What has plagued classical music are the consequences of a blind acceptance of free market logic. This logic had a renaissance beginning in the 1980s with the election of Ronald Reagan to the American presidency and the aura that surrounded Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as British prime minister. It was assumed that the quality of cultural institutions could be measured by their success in making profits. Culture, in other words, suffered from the enthusiasm for the privatization of functions that under a different public policy might properly be considered the province of government. Cultural institutions, from orchestras to art museums, were asked to show success by demonstrating more “earned income” from ticket sales, entrance fees, and even the sale of collateral products. Museums opened stores, and cultural institutions scrambled to find ways to sell objects to audiences who were increasingly regarded as customers. There is nothing wrong with earning money from ancillary activities, but the general climate resulted in an overarching presumption that cultural institutions needed to pay their own way along the lines of privately owned, for-profit businesses.


Because citizens and their governments all over the world will have the burden of regenerating a vital industrial sector, private enterprise, and the business community, it will be more difficult to argue for state support of education and culture. Given the cost of the worldwide bailout, governments will claim that they cannot afford to support culture and education. Yet before the collapse, when governments might legitimately have been able to provide support in a time of economic prosperity and boom, the argument was made that institutions of culture and education ought to fend for themselves in the marketplace, just as supposedly profitable industries and investment banks were doing. It seems clear that the current situation is both perverse and wrong-headed. There is no doubt that the massive state-supported economic bailout of banking, investment firms, and insurance companies is necessary. But the lesson to be learned is that the logic of a free market has limited utility. It certainly does not provide a universal basis by which to judge what is valuable in society.


At the same time, however, an opportunity presents itself as a result of the economic collapse. In the first instance, we will be forced to reconsider which values in society need active, aggressive promotion. Basic quality of life in the first instance must clearly be measured by material standards, but beyond the basic necessities it should also be measured by non-economic criteria. Now is the time for our governments to invest in culture and education. Institutions of culture and learning can provide for all citizens routes to a quality of life that can compete successfully with material consumption. Citizens are not just consumers of objects. We need a revitalized public sphere that places learning and entertainment, in its best sense, at the center. We face a greater need than ever before for new art, whether in the form of music or film or video, or dance and writing, or poetry or sculpture.

“Music in Times of Economic Distress,” Musical Quarterly (2007) 90(2): 167-175.
First published online: November 20, 2008.
Available to the Stanford community and other subscribers at

Democracy, Education, and the Arts:

Painting, sculpture, so-called classical music, including opera, theater, ballet, and dance – the full range of visual and performing arts, as well as certain genres of writing, particularly poetry — have never gained the sense of prestige and importance that they deserve in our democracy.  Too often they are understood as aristocratic enterprises, associated historically with nobility and royalty and distinctly European, as opposed to American, traditions.  The arts are therefore considered by many as highbrow culture and placed in opposition with popular taste.

As a result, they have been relegated to a supplemental status and seen as effective primarily as a means of making someone appear cultivated and refined, rather than as being a way of improving the lot of the majority of citizens.  Few Americans understand why it is necessary to subsidize arts institutions with tax dollars.  The feeling is that if they fail to compete with popular entertainment, then their irrelevancy is obvious.  Is it really good use of public money to support dance companies and orchestras?  The truth of the matter is that, as the emerging democracies in Eastern Europe have made evident, the arts must continue to flourish if a democracy is to succeed, and for reasons much more profound than a natural sympathy for the arts.


The arts create and sustain new ways of keeping freedom from losing meaning.  They help individuals retain their own sense of uniqueness in a world in which the pressure to conform is intense.  They fill out the hollow structures of democratic rights with meaning that is profoundly personalized.  They provide the imaginative world in which each individual can find a place and effectively fight the battle against deadening conformity.  They are not the superfluous embellishments of life, the ornaments we can do without.  Like science, the making and appreciating of art is integral to the practice of freedom.  The arts challenge the monopoly of commerce in matters of fundamental values.  The many generations of philosophers who have pondered the integral relationship between beauty and truth, between aesthetics and ethics, have done so with extremely good reason.

In terms of education, because of the massive misunderstanding in America regarding the arts, they should not be segregated out of the curriculum.  Rather, they should be part of mathematics and science.  The study of time and space should be informed by art and music.  The arts need to be part of the study of history and literature.  The understanding of language is enhanced by a knowledge of how sounds and images work in relationship to both contemporary language and the evidence of history preserved in written forms.  And the arts help to develop the cognitive skill we need in learning, from faculties of perception and expression to those of memory.

Citizens in a democracy need to be educated to find ways to created identities for themselves and communicate their sense of identity to others. They need to sense autonomy and choice in how they do this, so that they do not see themselves as passive mirrors of overwhelming historical and societal movements. They need to be given the means by which they can develop their own sense of self-worth without merely learning how to be consumers. They also need to come together with others in public spaces, out of the television room and away from the computer screen, to react and respond to the creative and daring challenges put forth by their contemporaries who are writing plays and music and making two- and three-dimensional art. This is why concert halls, theaters, and museums are crucial public venues in every city and region. In short, the performing and visual arts are not a luxury in a free and democratic society. They are they symptoms of its existence. And therefore, they need to be central to the educational agenda in a modern democracy.

Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture
(New York: Doubleday, 1997), pp. 222-224.

Selections by Zachary M. Baker, Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections
& Assistant University Librarian for Collection Development - Humanities & Social Sciences.

Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources ©2011.


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