Sunday, May 3, 2009

Politics and Music: Examples in Counterpoint

On 26th April 2009, Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, among the most respected of performing piano virtuosos globally, interrupted his recital at Disney Hall, Los Angeles, to announce that it would be his last performance in the United States - in protest against America's military policy overseas. "Get your hands off my country," Zimerman said. And when some in the audience decided to walk out on hearing his outburst, he commented wryly “Yes, some people, when they hear the word military, start marching."

While American foreign policy is keenly debated in all places and at all times (and its not surprising when Poland is the topic, given that there is speculation that the CIA held suspected terrorists in secret prisons in Poland and the U.S. Government have missile-defence projects in the pipeline on Polish soil); what shocked the audience and the world was the pointed remonstration coming from a classical pianist.

But before you get into the question of should music be political or should musicians venture into political debates, it is sobering to consider that Zimerman was doing what came naturally to many great classical musicians.

In the 1970s, legendary Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich publicly stood by his friend the author Alexander Solzhenitsyn after the famed writer was banned and eventually exiled by the Soviet regime. In fact, for years Rostropovich sheltered the harassed writer in his own home. Rostropovich himself was eventually stripped of Soviet citizenship. Years later, in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, one of those indelible images that flashed across the world was that of this master cellist's impromptu playing of a Bach cello suite at Checkpoint Charlie (the famed crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War, once divided by the Berlin Wall).

Rostropovich was, in more ways than one, the true successor of that other great cellist, Pablo Casals. Casals too, faced much hardship for his political views. In fact, such was the strength of his convictions that after the Spanish Civil War in 1939, he vowed not to return to his home country Spain until democracy was restored.

After the Second World War, Jewish violinist Yehudi Menuhin incurred the wrath of his fellow Jews and Americans by openly supporting and in fact performing and recording with the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (who was at that time under a cloud for having chosen to stay in Nazi Germany during the war as a high-profile conductor; although he never did join the Nazi Party, nor did he support their views. In fact he used his influence to help Jewish musicians escape Nazi forces). Years later in 1991, when Menuhin was awarded the Wolf Prize by the Israeli Government, he used his acceptance speech to actually condemn Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank.

In 1999, pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim founded the West-Eastern Divan Workshop and Orchestra, which did what generations have failed to do - bring young Palestinians and Israelis together; through the bond of music-making.

To listeners who come to music only for music’s sake, the extra-musical baggage of such political stances seem more a case of the musician exceeding his brief.

To listeners who see music as an expression, not only of timeless values, but also rooted in the cut and thrust of everyday living, political views from musicians enrich debate and help throw the spotlight on issues and concerns that affect us all. And in the end, their forays into political debate show musicians as being not merely perfectionist virtuosos, but also as full-blooded human beings with beliefs that need a voice beyond the notes.

No comments:

Post a Comment