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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
This post follows and completes Post #7 on Composer Guestbooks: Frederic Rzewski.

As mentioned in the previous thread I'm not and have never been a Marxist. Here significant music has been written by a composer whose ideology is odious to me. Concerning politics and Rzewski's piano composition The People United Will Never Been Defeated I think there are two strains of Marxism involved:
1. Frankfürt School Marxism - cultural basis, not in power, critique of the west
• strong sociology and philosophical orientation, plus Theodor Adorno's expertise in music
• "high culture" very important, embodies the most important tendencies of its time. For Adorno in 20th-century music: atonality and serialism plus new post-World War 2 developments in the west; opposed to jazz which he saw as commercial (1940's)
• Rzewski's work includes atonality, post-WW2 piano techniques and free improvisation
2. Orthodox Marxism - class basis, in power e.g. East Germany
• political and economic orientation, "music of the people" as in worker's songs and large commemorations
• composers include Hans Eisler, modernist; but post-WW2 avant-garde not accepted
• Rzewski quotes and composes variations on Chilean revolutionary song (The People United …) and Italian Communist song (Bandiera Rosa [Red Flag])

In my opinion Rzewski tries to unite these strains in his work. He said he wanted to appeal to a wider audience including the bourgeoisie (middle class) in The People United … . In that he succeeded: the work has been taken up by a number of outstanding pianists and there have been c. 20 recordings. There is another intentional aspect: the piece correlates in its large scale and other ways with Beethoven's classic Diabelli Variations. Beethoven wrote that work after the minor composer of a little waltz, Anton Diabelli, asked him and many other composers each to contribute one variation on his waltz for a volume that he would publish. Beethoven scorned the use of his name, joined with mediocrities for this crass venture, and decided instead to compose his own 30 variations on the waltz. I think Rzewski is signaling his identification with Beethoven as an idealist, revolutionary, pianist, composer, and key figure in the classical music tradition.
 

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Discussion Starter · #2 · (Edited)
• composers include Hans Eisler, modernist; but post-WW2 avant-garde not accepted
• Rzewski quotes and composes variations on Chilean revolutionary song (The People United …) and Italian Communist song (Bandiera Rosa [Red Flag])
Here are a few additions to the previous post "Politics and Frederic Rzewski's The People United will Never Be Defeated."
• the composer Hans Eisler was mentioned; in addition Frederic Rzewski's composition includes a quote and variations on the song Solidaritätslied (Solidarity Together) by Bertolt Brecht and Hans Eisler
• Rzewski moved to Belgium in 1977; he has continued to pursue his career in Europe and has also had several extended residencies at American universities
• my points about Rzewski's politics apply to the mid-1970's. I can't say whether his politics have changed since then. He has continued to compose works based on social justice themes and is an articulate speaker and writer about them
• there is an extensive literature about Rzewski including articles, interviews, and academic studies including dissertations. This link is to an interesting interview with him by well-known composer Joel Hoffman. https://therumpus.net/2015/07/the-rumpus-interview-with-frederic-rzewski/
 

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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. If you want to appreciate and enjoy art, it's best not to look behind the curtain if you are sensitive about people's politics. So there are people who have never sat down and given The People United Will Never Be Defeated the one hour plus it requires for a fair listening. The piece is rejected out of hand because it was composed by someone whose politics are considered by some to be (as you say) odious. I would say that Rzewski's music has hurt no one and pleased many. While themes of social justice - if they are in fact present in his compositions - should appeal to everyone, we live in a time where the definition of justice has been perverted along with the very thing that is required for there to be justice: truth. So, therefore, Rzewski's music can be viewed as subliminal propaganda by another commie who wants to make the masses more amenable to the collective. All one has to do is put his name in the same sentence as Orthodox Marxism, or the Frankfurt School, or the Darmstadt School or anything else that sounds ominous and threatening.

Having said that, there is to me nothing in The People United.... or Songs of Insurrection or anything else by R., other than the titles, that signal to me that I'm listening to something that is a Marxist rallying cry. So, I'm not picking up on the two strains of Marxism that informs this piece, but would like to be enlightened on this as it is a very interesting topic.

Maybe it's just music. If one doesn't like atonality or Modernism in general, then yes, you can take exception to these works by R. If one wants to put forth the proposition that atonality and Modernism are a Marxist conspiracy, then there is work to be done - starting with explaining why Communist governments were opposed to modernism in music, persecuted its proponents and championed the conservatives of Classical music.
 

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as proof that nothing is new under the sun, a hip thing among extremely online and inexperienced Marxists is to claim that Rothko was CIA propaganda aimed at destroying the truth of Socialist Realism. kids are reading one paragraph about government art founding and posting this in the year 2021.
 

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Discussion Starter · #5 · (Edited)
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. If you want to appreciate and enjoy art, it's best not to look behind the curtain if you are sensitive about people's politics. So there are people who have never sat down and given The People United Will Never Be Defeated the one hour plus it requires for a fair listening. The piece is rejected out of hand because it was composed by someone whose politics are considered by some to be (as you say) odious. I would say that Rzewski's music has hurt no one and pleased many. While themes of social justice - if they are in fact present in his compositions - should appeal to everyone, we live in a time where the definition of justice has been perverted along with the very thing that is required for there to be justice: truth. So, therefore, Rzewski's music can be viewed as subliminal propaganda by another commie who wants to make the masses more amenable to the collective. All one has to do is put his name in the same sentence as Orthodox Marxism, or the Frankfurt School, or the Darmstadt School or anything else that sounds ominous and threatening.

Having said that, there is to me nothing in The People United.... or Songs of Insurrection or anything else by R., other than the titles, that signal to me that I'm listening to something that is a Marxist rallying cry. So, I'm not picking up on the two strains of Marxism that informs this piece, but would like to be enlightened on this as it is a very interesting topic.

Maybe it's just music. If one doesn't like atonality or Modernism in general, then yes, you can take exception to these works by R. If one wants to put forth the proposition that atonality and Modernism are a Marxist conspiracy, then there is work to be done - starting with explaining why Communist governments were opposed to modernism in music, persecuted its proponents and championed the conservatives of Classical music.
Thank you for your post. I agree with some of it, and will also try to respond to points of difference. I hope readers will not think I'm implying things that I didn't write or imply at all.

1. I agree that Rzewski's music "has to be viewed through the lens of a political and social context" and have done so, moving over from the first part of my reply to Mandryka to this Politics and Religion in Classical Music thread in line with current TalkClassical policy. I'm not discouraging anyone from listening to Rzewski's composition, which I called a "significant work." I distanced myself from Marxism in case anyone might think that my posts are implicitly in support of Marxism or of Rzewski's position on Marxism in 1975. Nevertheless, in distancing myself from Marxism I now feel my use of the word "odious" was both going too far (in terms of TC policy) and unnecessary. I would like to substitute, "ideology I do not support."

2. Responding to your concern about mentioning Rzewski in connection with Orthodox Marxism, the Frankfurt School, or the Darmstadt School, I feel those types of connections are necessary. While facts might sound ominous or be taken as subliminal propaganda by some, they still are facts. (Some people will probably think me to be "a commie" simply because of posting on this topic, and I can't help that.)

3. My use of "Orthodox Marxism" may be non-standard. The Frankfurt School (including Theodor Adorno, who aligned with the Second Viennese School and such younger composers as Boulez and Stockhausen) became prominent in West Germany and other countries in the West after World War 2. Its "ideological" Marxism was at the level of "superstructure," the controlling ideas and structures of society. They called their opposers "vulgar Marxists," who at least since the early twentieth century had produced workers' songs, cabaret songs, popular songs, music for Party events, etc. I don't use "vulgar Marxism" because of its condescension, and also because after WW2 East Germany had been founded, aligned with the Soviet Union, and Orthodox Marxism seemed to me better than "vulgar" Marxism. To be sure, the Eastern Bloc countries also continued to support classical music and regional folk music, but they bitterly opposed atonality, serialism, and the post-war avant-garde. In the 1950's Adorno titled an article about the Soviet Union "Music Led by the Nose."

4. I hope my preceding comments plus the following will answer your question about "two strains of Marxism." I learned this idea over 35 years ago in a graduate seminar given by a musicologist who was an expert on twentieth-century music in Germany, including social and political factors. I wrote a paper for it about "The People United…," which I interpreted as bringing together the two strains noted above. That was my idea, which the professor agreed with. He said that the paper could be published but it needed considerably more research and analysis.

5. The People United… incorporates three songs (see my earlier posts) that certainly are Marxist rallying cries, as one can see by reading their texts and explanations. If one listens closely to E Pueblo Unido, Bandiera Rosa, or the Solidaritätslied, it is not too difficult also to hear them as substantial presences in The People United…, subject to variation and development processes, dramatic presentations, and pianism that is not shy. I mentioned earlier Rzewski's stated intention to expand his audience. I would say that the work at its time of composition - 1975 - does actively support Marxism at both the superstructure and popular levels. The combination of atonal/avant-garde elements with revolutionary songs may at least in my view be interpreted as bringing together musically Frankfurt School and "vulgar Marxism" strains.
 

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Your mention of Adorno and the SVS reminded me of one of my favorites, Stefan Wolpe, who was also a lefty in Berlin in those days. He, Adorno and Kurt Weill were all members of the November Group. Wolpe was a real outsider and an avowed anti-facist who wrote songs for worker's unions and communist theater. (I think Weill did too, but his Threepenny Opera included the ballad Mack the Knife - with words by none other than Bertolt Brecht - is what I'll remember him for.)

There is something about artists and left wing politics and the November Group must have had some fun meetings. Wolpe, for one, was an absolute musical non-conformist and Adorno an intellectual non-conformist. The architects were pretty much the same, a lot of guys later associated with the Bauhaus, and the painters were the founding members.

As for Rzewski, I do like a lot of his stuff, probably because I like works for solo piano. The guy is, among other things, a virtuoso at the piano. Knowing the texts or other inspirations for the compositions isn't really a consideration for me (unless it's something like Coming Together where the vocal styling is more annoying than whatever it is he's saying), only a point of interest.
 

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Discussion Starter · #7 ·
As for Rzewski, I do like a lot of his stuff, probably because I like works for solo piano. The guy is, among other things, a virtuoso at the piano. Knowing the texts or other inspirations for the compositions isn't really a consideration for me (unless it's something like Coming Together where the vocal styling is more annoying than whatever it is he's saying), only a point of interest.
R.I.P. Frederic Rzewski 1938-2021. I think of him now as a young man of the 1960's, ready for every avant-garde challenge with musical and academic abilities and education that supported his success. Near the end of his life he had mellowed and I think appreciated that support more -- complaining that young composers no longer learn counterpoint, for example.
 

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For a number of years earlier in my life I worked in proximity to Christian Wolff, but was far too shy ever to engage him in a conversation --especially about a question that interested me that he would have thoughts on: Can a piece of instrumental music really be political? Certainly an opera can (those based on Beaumarchais's seditious "Figaro" plays, for instance, or any product of Stalin's Soviet Union, or Mao's Great Cultural Revolution). Or incidental music to plays ("Egmont"), or songs or cantatas or other vocal works. But how can something without words, other than connotations that some people might have?
Sure, "The People United . . ." uses Marxist anthems as a starting point, but other than the title, who would know? It's mainly a terrific set of variations. Can anyone here name a purely instrumental composition that might inspire one to rush to the barricades?
 

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I am turned off by political art, especially music. I took an immediate dislike to this work, and when I became aware of his politics, avoided anything involving Frederic Rzewski.
 

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I don't find the general (postmodern?) idea of art being inherently political being that compelling - just a statement that art comes from a society and cultural context, which is true, but kind of trivial. But generally when people talk about works being "political" they mean overtly, either via lyrics or a very explicit programmatic composition. I do find it strange when applied to a work which is formally abstract.
 

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Anyone familiar with these essays?

OK, no takers for this. If Orwell is right that art is always propaganda and therefore political - and he is quite persuasive - then that may give Rzewski more license to make this more overt. This is not about others using art as propaganda (such as Hitler with Wagner or Stalin's demand that Soviet art conforms to his stipulations) but about artists presenting a view of the world (in the broadest sense) that is slanted to suit their own - or their patron's - conscious or unconscious ideology. We know that some of the greats sometimes used music to promote a cause quite overtly - Beethoven has some obvious examples (the Eroica, Fidelio etc) and Mozart chose to set a social satire, the Marriage of Figaro, for one of his greatest operas - but to go along with Orwell we need to think of the possible propaganda being hidden in all works. Of course, such propaganda might not represent a composer's view but might represent something that patrons and audiences would appreciate. This can seem more obvious when you consider what composers might have chosen not to write into their music so as to avoid offense.
 

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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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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.
 

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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.
 

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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.
 

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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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