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Seen and Heard Editorial: January 2005


On the Humanity of Music and Musicians: the new unacknowledged legislators

As 2005 begins under the cloud of another humanitarian catastrophe it is worth reminding ourselves of the universal voice that is music. For centuries composers have written powerfully of human suffering, from Beethoven’s Fidelio, with its dual themes of human misery and the shackles of tyranny, to Sir Michael Tippett’s A Child of our Time, an oratorio that looks at intolerance and inhumanity through music of great spiritualism and pacifism, and beyond. But music has often been used as a form of catharsis and requiem: at a Proms concert on 11th September 2001, Christoph Eschenbach and the Orchestre de Paris performed the ‘Funeral March’ of Beethoven’s Eroica, the first great symphony to consider the virtues of idealism and heroism; it was an apposite way to open a concert which took place under a shroud of human tragedy. It now seems appropriate that English National Opera’s staging of Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, which opens in January, will have a global humanitarian context into which the music can be placed.

But beyond the thematic allusions of the music itself, and the composers who create it, we should remember those musicians who have made, and continue to make, such an impact around the world through a selfless devotion to causes that seem to elude politicians from every country and every political creed. It takes the sagacity of a Daniel Barenboim to put into context the failure of a generation of politicians, too contaminated by an historical dialectic, to see that the future lies not in the past but with the careful, unprejudiced nurturing of youth. It cannot be a coincidence that one of the highpoints of 2004 was a concert given by Daniel Barenboim and the East-Western Divan Orchestra, a concert, which at least for the two hours it lasted, seemed to offer hope for the future. Simon Rattle’s projects with the Berlin Philharmonic to take music into the inner cities and the London Symphony Orchestra’s Discovery programme, and its development of an education centre at LSO St Luke’s, are but two examples of the outreach work being done for wider society on behalf of music, custodians of a future seemingly being neglected by elected governments on every continent. Conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink constantly look forward to unifying goals, while governments around the world regress into isolationism and rely on decades of stagnant political failure to perpetuate division. The irony is that the rehabilitation of music as a global force for unification is being done under the aegis of global cuts in arts funding.

Events such as the Asian earthquake focus international opinion for too short a period of time on wider humanitarian goals and false long-term promises. Wars will reignite, governments will dissolve into recrimination and people will soon forget. Yet, it is the power of music, and the musicians who create it, that could now provide the momentum for universal and lasting change. In 1822, Shelly called poets the “unacknowledged legislators”; today that description could aptly be applied to men such as Barenboim. Given the failure of politicians to be a force for change there seems nothing arbitrary, or wrong, about musicians and composers turning their art into a political and moral forum. When Edward Said wrote in The Nation in September 2001 that, “...at the dawn of the twenty-first century the writer has taken on more and more of the intellectual’s adversarial attributes in such activities as speaking the truth to power, being a witness to persecution and suffering, and supplying a dissenting voice in conflicts with authority,” he could equally have been defining the role of the composer or musician in modern society. It is not just the clarity of view which musicians can bring to a better world order, it is also an incorruptible belief that what is being heard is being heard with wider unifying goals in sight. Never before has music seemed so selfless or so non-elitist.

Quite how all this will manifest itself is an unanswerable question. Governments are preternaturally afraid of any opposition, but when it is artists voicing the conscience of the people they become even more so. This need not be confined to artists working in totalitarian societies; it manifests itself in democracies as well. There are countless examples of musicians, poets, writers and artists becoming casualties of truth and conviction. Both Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle have made headline news in the UK through their outspoken belief that politicians are failing in their political and cultural responsibilities. So far it has damaged neither mans career, though there is the danger that the effects of their candor may become more pernicious in the wider political picture. Governments are not beyond making the arts suffer for the honesty of others: during the 1980s British cultural life suffered immeasurably because of its vocal opposition to government policy; cuts in government grants to the arts are now a reality in 2005.

Being an “unacknowledged legislator” brings with it responsibility. It is the challenge for the great musicians and composers of our time to assume the mantle of that responsibility with wider humanitarian goals in mind rather than creating national division, though both are becoming increasingly inseparable. The musician’s vision must be a universal one, and it should not just be something that elicits wider meaning at times of suffering and tragedy. The power of music lies beyond the occasional; it is a permanent reminder of both the greatness of human achievement and its ability to affect change for millions.

Marc Bridle

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