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Thread: Politics and Frederic Rzewski's The People United will Never Be Defeated

  1. #16
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    To the man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. I think a rather specific word like propaganda loses its meaning if it is applied too broadly. I'd give him the Eroica or Figaro. But the Waldstein sonata or the clarinet quintet? How are they connected to ideology? And how should one find out to which one? revolution or ancien regime?
    Is a Bach organ prelude propaganda for the Lutheran church? (It can be played in a Catholic church, too...)

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  3. #17
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    I think Orwell is mostly not dealing with abstract forms in his writing (he's a literature critic, mostly), though I generally agree with the notion that art will inherently speak about the values of the society which created it, which you can call "political". A lot of "overtly political" classical music is a bit strange - apart from opera, textual/sacred works, or programmatic stuff like a battle piece (or Rzewski's depiction of worker songs being swallowed up by machinery noises in "Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues"), usually the "overtly political" stuff really comes from exegesis - we "know" The People United is political because the artist said so and we know the artist is a left-wing one, and we know that the theme is a Chilean revolutionary anthem, and we know the piece was probably cheekily released during 1976 (the US bicentennial) but this isn't really what most would consider acceptable art criticism, especially for a work in an abstract form like a piano theme-and-variations.
    Last edited by fbjim; Aug-02-2021 at 14:54.

  4. #18
    Senior Member SanAntone's Avatar
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    While I do not wish to hear political classical music I have no problem (and there is a long tradition of) social commentary in songs. Many of the broadside ballads going back hundreds of years were something between newspapers and editorials, and of course during the '60s there were the "protest songs". Country music has a long tradition of writing songs about disasters with a criticism of the corporate practices that brought about mining disasters, as well as, floods.

    I myself have written songs about issues such as domestic violence, racism, and teen pregnancies. But IMO the best way to write these songs is to remain an observer and not become preachy. Bob Dylan's "Pawn in Their Game" is a good example of describing a problem but not passing judgment in recognition of the complex nature of social/cultural conflicts.

    For me this is the reason why I generally don't like political classical music, often the composer writes the work with a judgmental, superficial, one-sided, view of the problem being addressed.
    Last edited by SanAntone; Aug-02-2021 at 15:08.

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    Quote Originally Posted by SanAntone View Post
    For me this is the reason why I generally don't like political classical music, often the composer writes the work with a judgmental, superficial, one-sided, view of the problem being addressed.
    I don't want to repeat myself too much, and taste is taste but I think this is a really weird thing to accuse non-representative music of being. We can certainly take the circumstances of the artist into account but even social art criticism tends to step away from giving the artists statements on their own art special privilege when it comes to critical interpretation.


    e) this doesn't mean we can't map political interpretations onto the work but it's really hard for me to reconcile "judgmental, superficial, one-sided, view of the problem being addressed" on a theme-and-variations. certainly the work can be put into a larger political context as an early form of polystylistic post-modern composition, and we can take away views of left-wing egalitarianism from the way the composer mixes avant-garde techniques with "lower" forms of classical writing in a manner which suggests their equality, but even that's something of a stretch.
    Last edited by fbjim; Aug-02-2021 at 15:34.

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    Quote Originally Posted by fbjim View Post
    I don't want to repeat myself too much, and taste is taste but I think this is a really weird thing to accuse non-representative music of being. We can certainly take the circumstances of the artist into account but even social art criticism tends to step away from giving the artists statements on their own art special privilege when it comes to critical interpretation.


    e) this doesn't mean we can't map political interpretations onto the work but it's really hard for me to reconcile "judgmental, superficial, one-sided, view of the problem being addressed" on a theme-and-variations. certainly the work can be put into a larger political context as an early form of polystylistic post-modern composition, and we can take away views of left-wing egalitarianism from the way the composer mixes avant-garde techniques with "lower" forms of classical writing in a manner which suggests their equality, but even that's something of a stretch.
    I wasn't thinking of abstract works but more likely operas or other works with a text or narrative program. However, knowing a composer's politics, a title can be enough to cause the work to be an overt political statement.

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    Senior Member fluteman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SanAntone View Post
    I wasn't thinking of abstract works but more likely operas or other works with a text or narrative program. However, knowing a composer's politics, a title can be enough to cause the work to be an overt political statement.
    One question one might ask is, 100 years or more later, when the specific political context of the work is no longer relevant, is it still convincing? Inspiring? Thought provoking? We see political themes in visual art and literature all the time, including in works that are many centuries old. In most of those works, most of us would have to do some historical research even just to learn what the political context and message was. Dante's Divine Comedy is a good example. What about the operas of Shostakovich, The Nose and Lady Macbeth? Or Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant, with it's anti-Vietnam War message? Don't they have something to them that goes beyond their specific political context?

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    I really see The People United's "theme" as almost a dedication (like the Eroica) as much as anything. There certainly are broader left-wing references in it, eg the use of the Bandiera Rossa and Die Moorsoldaten melodies but I don't think those are as important as the formal structure of the work as a polystylistic theme-and-variations piece. I don't know enough about the history of post-modern classical but he does do that polystylism a bit in his works- "Which Side Are You On" from North American Ballads is apparently a jokey reference to the whole avant-garde-versus-minimalist thing - it's a musical form he seemed to like returning to repeatedly.
    Last edited by Art Rock; Aug-03-2021 at 16:22. Reason: Removed non-music related politics.

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    A reminder: even though this thread is in the Politics and Religion in Classical Music sub-forum, politics not directly related to music cannot be discussed. Posts that do so will be edited or deleted.

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    I was responding to a post stating that the left-wing themes in some art are no longer relevant. I believe the context of social events and conditions which produced art is well under the purview of art criticism and analysis, though I don't want to push the issue too hard here.

    Mainly just saying that it's difficult to respond to the idea that the social themes of a work aren't relevant without referencing politics at large

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    Senior Member SanAntone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by fluteman View Post
    One question one might ask is, 100 years or more later, when the specific political context of the work is no longer relevant, is it still convincing? Inspiring? Thought provoking? We see political themes in visual art and literature all the time, including in works that are many centuries old. In most of those works, most of us would have to do some historical research even just to learn what the political context and message was. Dante's Divine Comedy is a good example. What about the operas of Shostakovich, The Nose and Lady Macbeth? Or Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant, with it's anti-Vietnam War message? Don't they have something to them that goes beyond their specific political context?
    I heard from song publishers and pluggers to not include any specific cultural references, brands, topical/political themes for this very reason. It date-stamped a song which in all likelihood would lose it relevance: "Here's a Quarter Call Someone Who Cares."

    However, often a lyric's magic is in these little details. So it is a balancing act. Shakespeare managed to do it.
    Last edited by SanAntone; Aug-03-2021 at 16:48.

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  13. #26
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    Quote Originally Posted by gregorx View Post
    When it comes to Rzewski, nobody can just listen to his music; it has to be viewed through the lens of a political and social context.
    I just like the music. I hear Rzewski's empathy and humanity behind it, not his thoughts on policy

    Same with Henze FWIW

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  15. #27
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    Quote Originally Posted by SanAntone View Post
    I heard from song publishers and pluggers to not include any specific cultural references, brands, topical/political themes for this very reason. It date-stamped a song which in all likelihood would lose it relevance: "Here's a Quarter Call Someone Who Cares."

    However, often a lyric's magic is in these little details. So it is a balancing act. Shakespeare managed to do it.
    Right. Shakespeare's Falstaff of Henry IV and V originally was named Sir John Oldcastle, an actual historical political figure, and a Lollard dissenter who was executed for heresy and treason. Late in the game, Shakespeare decided it would be a better idea to substitute a fictional name, but he didn't fully eradicate all signs of the original name. He certainly was sensitive to emphasizing more universal themes and avoiding contemporary political controversy.

    Arlo Guthrie may not quite be a modern Shakespeare, but he also is clever about these things. He uses self-deprecating, ironic humor and a catchy tune to diffuse any dangerous controversy. In the end, the message is more about the absurdity of war, and human existence generally, than Vietnam.

    I guess there's a lesson somewhere in all that.
    Last edited by fluteman; Aug-03-2021 at 21:04.

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