The rest is power: classical music in the age of the dictatorship

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Niccolo and Donkey
The rest is power: classical music in the age of the dictatorship

Guardian UK

Will Self

May 10, 2013

Richard Wagner's daughter-in-law escorts Adolf Hitler during the Bayreuth festival Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

In his preface to The Rest Is Noise , Alex Ross writes: "In the classical field it has long been fashionable to fence music off from society, to declare it a self-sufficient language." He goes on to contend that while in the "hyper-political 20th century, that barrier crumbles again and again", the "vague, mutable and deeply personal nature of musical meaning" makes the establishment of clear connections – let alone correspondences – between music and the outer world "devilishly difficult".

This is in fact a special form of pleading that rests on artificial parameters: implicit in The Rest Is Noise , for all its formal disavowals, there remains an assumed sharp dichotomy between high and low art, and a privileging of the discourse of the former. While this may be a legitimate by-product of Ross's central purpose (after all, he is writing the history of 20th-century classical music ), it leads him into reformulating the very aesthetic position he seems to renounce, without being able to adequately account for the way the rest of the 20th century's noise – its telephone tintinnabulation and ticker-tape timpani, its 4/4 stroke internal combustion engines and Wurlitzer steam ones – vitally impacted on the sound worlds of the great composers, even as they appeared to be turning their backs on it.

This is not to claim that Ross pays no attention to the impact of technological modernity on 20th-century classical music – he most certainly does. He notes the influence of recorded sound on the practice of composers as various as Percy Grainger and Béla Bartók ; he identifies the gramophone – and latterly the radio – as totalising forces that erased deep cultural differences by spreading the "lingua franca" of American-style pop music. And he locates in Stravinsky 's work in particular a creative response to new technology that resulted not only in a "steel-tipped" sound to his neo-baroque compositions of the interwar years, but a powerfully constructive creative relationship with it as "a new kind of folklore, another infusion of the real".

The fact of Hitler's undoubted musicality torments Ross, and runs through The Rest Is Noise like a haunting threnody – from the 17-year-old's claimed attendance of the 1906 premiere of Strauss's Salome in Graz, to the Nazi leader's ecstatic absorption into the Wagner cult at Bayreuth, to the gramophone parties at Berchtesgaden, in the German Bavarian Alps, where he lectured his inner circle on this or that piece while it was playing. Ross describes Richard Strauss's equivocations with the Nazi regime and Hitler (who shamelessly flattered the composer only so far as he compromised himself artistically as well as morally) in a highly equivocal way: he wants to save Strauss, the man, from the fascist taint, just as he wants to save Wagner's sublime coloratura from the livid streak of antisemitism that tainted its creator. But really there's no need for these complex dissections to separate head from heart, or morality from art. To adopt the contemporary idiom, Hitler was indeed a great music lover – get over it! He could be one, and still prosecute the deaths of untold millions by word and deed.

Hitler loved music because many humans – including evil ones – love music. He loved Wagner's music both despite and because Wagner was an antisemite – it all just fed into the semiotic mix. Hitler also adored Franz Lehár 's light operettas because he was a petit-bourgeois Austrian from the sticks, and that's what people like him, from there, at that time, loved. It's no more bizarre than Charles Manson loving the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" , and considerably less strange than American shock-rocker Marilyn Manson's choice of a stage name. The real shocker, though, is that classical music aficionados – including Alex Ross – still believe there can be something intrinsically morally ennobling about music.

In The Rest Is Noise, Ross reminds us of the invention, in 1906, of "a 200‑tonne instrument called the Teleharmonium, which, by way of an ingenious if unwieldy array of alternators, broadcast arrangements of Bach, Chopin and Grieg to audiences in Teleharmonic Hall opposite the Met". Ross's implication is that this was technology at its most premature; because he goes on to say that the Teleharmonium interfered with calls of local phone-subscribers – that "rushing, singing sound" again – and the hall shut after only two seasons. In fact, during the late 19th century, telephonic broadcasting systems operated in most of the major cities (the first was in Budapest). In London, the Electrophone Company was established in 1894, allowing subscribers to "sit comfortably at home in all weathers and listen to the latest comedy, opera, or tragedy, as the case may be, by the payment of a nominal rental". (This description comes from Stephen Inwood's excellent City of Cities: The Birth of Modern London .) Subscribers to Electrophone received four headsets, so that the family could listen together.

True, there were only 600 paid-up subscribers, but the system was extended free to London hospitals, where it remained in use during the first world war. There was also an Electrophone Salon in Gerrard Street, where le bon ton, in full evening dress, listened to West End performances; and several London restaurants – including the Cafe Royale – had tabletop electrophones that allowed diners to hear the latest popular tunes by putting sixpence in a slot and cranking the handle of the apparatus. This early jukebox should remind us that all eras are steampunk in the sense that they contain within them, simultaneously, nascent and obsolescent forms of technology. The Teleharmonium and the Electrophone foreshadowed the broadcast of music by radio waves, but they also explode the notion that the telephone itself was ever a device that facilitated intimacy.

Stalin was a phoner quite as much as a phoney; the dictator enjoyed a particularly sinister form of chitchat: the late-night call placed to this or that artist would provide him with the opportunity to grant an imperial boon – in Dimitri Shostakovich 's case, a life-saving sinecure that kept the composer afloat in Stalin's bloody flux. But just as frequently, an artist would be told to expect a call that never came, and would either moulder away his days in petrified tension, or else have this fermata terminated by the heavy largo of the NKVD's approaching jackboots. Stalin, Ross writes, had narrow but by no means vulgar musical tastes. A frequent attendee at the Bolshoi, he also listened to classical music on the radio, sang folksongs with a fine tenor voice and audited every single recording made in the Soviet Union, writing judgements on the sleeves. What a curious contrast with the musical engagement of our own monarchical family, the members of which are seldom – if ever – to be seen in the Covent Garden opera house dedicated to them.

Ross's doom-laden narrative of Shostakovich and his music under Stalin's regime is, perhaps, the most dramatic portion of The Rest Is Noise . His careful readings of Shostakovich's Fourth and Fifth symphonies represent the clearest possible refutation of the idea that music is a non-representational art form. Indeed, when Ross writes of the response to the finale of the Fifth, with its listeners – many of whom were numb with grief from the loss of family members and friends to the Terror – jerked to their feet, while its conductor, Mravinsky, then held the score above his head throughout the long ovation, it's hard not to wish – albeit perversely – for a society and a culture in which music truly mattered this much. Ross writes of the sarcasm and even the irony detectable in many of the pieces Shostakovich composed during this period, but also hedges his non-representational bets by reiterating that since it's difficult to know what any given piece of music means, it remains still more problematic to claim that music can be mouthing one thing, while saying its diametric opposite.

And yet The Rest Is Noise paints with exemplary clarity the moral vacillations of Shostakovich and Strauss, and how those vacillations were depicted by their compositions during the late 1930s and into the second world war. When we reach the redemptive tale of Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony No 7 – the microfilmed score flown out of the USSR to Tehran then around the war-torn world to be conducted by Toscanini in New York – we can only append to the author's aperçu "The composer became a propaganda symbol for the allied cause," the further observation that the piece itself also portrayed this cause. Leningraders heard Shostakovich's Seventh for the first time under absurdly apt conditions, given – as Ross writes – that the composer intended to "record in almost stenographic fashion the emotions of battle". The depleted Leningrad Radio Orchestra had to be bolstered by soldier-players conscripted from the frontline (three of whom died during rehearsals), and in spite of the attempts of a German general to disrupt the performance, the defenders took the initiative with a heavy bombardment of the enemy positions, followed by the symphony, which howled out into the eerie quiet of no man's land through loudspeakers.

Ross says of this bizarre irruption of the classical verities into the most extreme of contemporary contingencies: "the symphony became a tactical strike against German morale." And what could possibly be more representational than that? No, the problem for classical music in the age of the dictators remains the same one that classical music retains to this day: it remains, by virtue of the accumulated cultural sediment implicit in its very ascription – classical – an art form forever hand-cranking itself into contemporary relevance, and always tainted by association with vertiginous social hierarchies. We can see this more clearly if we examine those dystopian novels that famously either anticipated the emergent form of 20th-century totalitarianism, or responded to its actual shape – for in three, prime, examples, the significance of music is primary.

Yevgeny Zamyatin's We was completed in 1921, published in English in 1924, but had to wait another 64 years to appear in his native Russia. This is for obvious reasons: although the dystopia is called "One State", and the ideological overlord is glossed as Taylor (the American guru of the "Efficiency Movement" and father of the time and motion study), there can be no mistaking We as anything but a monitory portrait of what Russia was likely to become under the soulless inspiration of dialectical materialism. In One State , there are no names, only numbers, and mechanised music plays the role of emotional governor: "As always the big Musical Tower was playing the March of the United State with all its pipes … the Numbers were walking slowly, four abreast, exaltedly keeping step." The protagonist, D-503, goes to a talk given by a "phono-lecturer" on the "musicometer", a machine whereby "merely rotating this handle anyone can produce about three sonatas an hour. What difficulties our predecessors had in making music! They were able to compose only by bringing themselves to attacks of inspiration, an extinct form of epilepsy."

Zamyatin was describing music as yet to be created – although it sounds uncannily like Philip Glass 's to me. In Aldous Huxley 's Brave New World music is also machine-made and ubiquitous, "warbling" from "synthetic music machines". The genetically engineered humans of the future are also – like the numbers of One State – corralled through the choral, but in their case, rather than marching songs, they participate in Solidarity Services and Mass Community Sings, both being drug-fuelled and orgiastic. When Huxley's characters are exposed to primitive music in Mexico they experience it as terrifying – as does Zamyatin's D-503 when he is exposed to a Scriabin piano piece.

In Orwell 's 1984 the distinction is also drawn between the machine-made music created by "Versificators" that propagandises from the telescreens – and which is produced in bulk, along with all culture by departments of Winston Smith's Ministry of Truth – and the rendition of these ditties by the authentic voices of the proles. Still more revelatory is the song of a thrush heard by Winston and his lover Julia during one of their clandestine trysts: "The music went on and on, minute after minute, with astonishing variations, never once repeating itself, almost as though the bird were deliberately showing off its virtuosity." In stark contrast is the theme song of Hate Week, concocted – rather than composed – to orchestrate the sublimation of the individual into mass violence: "It had a savage, barking rhythm which could not exactly be called music, but resembled the beating of a drum. Roared out by hundreds of voices to the tramp of marching feet, it was terrifying." Like so much of 1984 this is clearly Orwell's recasting of his own distempered 1948 into a dystopian future. And like all the best futurology it succeeds by pinpointing those discontinuous advances in technology that – while still only emergent – will come to dominate the societies to come.

The Rest Is Noise offers us a fascinating narrative of classical music under the mid-20th-century tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin, but what it cannot adequately convey is the extent to which developments in compositional theory were quite irrelevant to what music was saying, or being made to say. For insight into this we must have recourse to the hoary old McLuhan adage: "the medium is the message"; and the new media that came increasingly to dominate the making and receiving of music in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were the telephone, the radio and the television.

• Will Self's lecture on "Dictatorship, Machines and 20th Century Classical Music" will be delivered today in the Art of Fear series as part of The Rest Is Noise festival at the Southbank, London SE1.
Niccolo and Donkey