Monday, December 06, 2004

At Least They're Reading Our Poetry

One more little note, of the encoding-lifestream variety: We dashed across the street to the fall concert of the Columbia orchestra earlier this evening, and it was a true delight. The program was a crowd-pleaser, with Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, and Copland's Appalachian Spring. And the performance was wonderful, making me realize that living or working at or near a university is always worthwhile. Anyway, the part I want to record for posterity is the concert notes, in particular a pair of passages about Copland. The topic of concern is whether it is dangerous, flattering, or both when the Government takes an interest in art. First, on the music:
... Reviewing the first Workers Song Book of 1934, Copland writes of mass song as "a powerful weapon in the class struggle," a "collective art activity" that "creates solidarity and inspires action." He is more pointed still: mass song, he maintains, is "a more effective weapon than any in the hands of the novelist, painter, or even playright..." ... This isn't just idealism, it's communism, and it colors the brazenly memorable simplicity of Appalachian Spring with more than just utopian longing. In its squaredances, country fiddlings, and revivalist sermons, a dream of another America, a coup, is couched.
And now on Copland and America:
1953. The Chairman: "Now, Mr. Copland, have you ever been a Communist? Mr. Copland: "No, I have not been a Communist in the past and I am not now a Communist." The Chairman: "Would you agree... that there is a political importance in music?" Mr. Copland: "I certainly would not... I spend my days writing symphonies, concertos, ballads and I am not a political thinker." Copland won a Pulitzer prize for Appalachian Spring in 1945, but it hardly kept Joseph McCarthy from issuing the composer a subpoena and interrogating him behind closed doors in 1953. Fifty years later, as part of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the transcripts were released, and the make at least two unpleasant points:
  1. No amount of musical patriotism, either the implicit Appalachian Spring variety, or the explicit Lincoln Portrait kind, will get you off the hook when Fear is ruling the Ruling Powers, and
  2. Copland perjured himself, twice. First, he was, if not entirely official party-member, definitely a fighter for the cause; he didn't just defend the premise of mass songs, but wrote them too, songs like "Into the Streets May First." Second: Copland denied music any political force, emasculating arguably the dearest aspect of his vocation.
He had to bluff, out of self-preservation, but it's still painful to read. When was the last time the American government really wanted to know what a composer thought about the political import of music? And cared about his answer? We will have to wait for the FOIA to get us the transcripts.
This reminds me of some garbled quote from a Soviet history class, in which one poet said to another, "Sure, they're sentencing us to death in a labor camp, but at least they're reading our poetry!"


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