THE BLOG
10/31/2012 02:31 pm ET

Music and the DNA of War

New York's 2012-2013 classical music season got off to its official start recently with three concerts. Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic performed a program that included the Schoenberg "Piano Concerto," and Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony performed Carl Orff's Carmina Burana on one program and a second program that featured Ottorino Respighi's Feste Romane. It is 67 years after the end of World War II, and it is that war, and all it did to shape our musical lives -- that was the common denominator for two of America's greatest orchestras to herald the new season.

The long-term impact of that war is still so much with us in music, because it was music that was one of its weapons and also one of its victims. It was music that became a symbolic means of how Mussolini united his country, and it was music that Hitler used as a cultural flashpoint to win over the Germans in his ever-expanding Reich. The three works mentioned above are three examples of the thousands of musical compositions that were created during that period, as well as the countless works that came as a direct result of the world it left behind -- a world we live in today -- in which the very heart and soul of classical music was left, Amfortas-like, permanently wounded.

This is a huge and complicated story and cannot be fully told in a blog. So, here is a little appetizer. The most infamous dictators of the 20th century agreed on one artistic precept -- music influences behavior. More than theater, music is the art form that can be considered to be part of public policy. It is sneaky. It is invisible. It can, and does, embody and project meaning, in spite of one theory that music is not about anything. What we still refer to as "Western music" is absolutely not absolute.

It is a language of metaphor and onomatopoeia. It is built on two very simple rules: 1) faster frequency pitches are "higher" than slower frequency pitches, and 2) home base. Once you accept any idea of high and low (in the physical sense) and that a melodic line must return home (there's no place like it, after all), you've got an invisible/aural language that acts as a metaphor of the physical world and creates an environment that encourages certain kinds of behavior. And while home is the terminology for the "key" of a work, the aura around that key is an echo of the physical properties of all objects in the universe that are flexible -- that is -- that bend or vibrate. Thus, a string or a column of air vibrates (causing sound) but these vibrations contain other, less obvious sounds. That is known as the harmonic series which contains the major and minor chords we accept as the normal accompaniment to the melodies we sing. This is called tonality and it is embedded, or at least implied, by the way we perceive the physical universe.

And that's really all you need to know about Western music. You know everything else. It has been taught to you by your mother, and by the scores to Looney Tunes, Disney movies, parades, athletic events, Sunday morning church services and every television program you saw as a child. It is honed every day when music is heard in your life, creating a world of generally accepted metaphors placed within your personal experiences.

Over the centuries, Western music has built up a symbolic language that we all associate with experiences. But what Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler (and Mao) knew, is that music is incredibly powerful. It can influence a nation, and it can be a potent political tool, hidden beneath the notes and hidden behind the cloak of esthetic pronouncements.

For Mussolini, the task was to unite Italy and find a common cultural image that everyone -- Sicilians and Piemontese, the Milanese and the Torinese -- could buy into. Metternich's comment that Italy was not a country but a "geographical expression" was countered by one unifying idea: that Italy was Italy when it was Rome. (Ancient Rome was, in case you've forgotten, the First Reich.) Thus, Mussolini encouraged all his composers -- and you had to join the Fascist party if you expected your music to be published or played -- to choose Roman themes and, thus, Respighi's "Roman Trilogy." This was music to unite a fascist Italy around an idea of power. One of the achievements of this policy was "Feste Romane" of Ottorino Respighi. (The other two works of the trilogy, "Pines of Rome" and "Fountains of Rome," were played at the New York Philharmonic's opening night gala on September 20.)

The night before the Chicago Respighi performance this fall, Carnegie Hall's gala opening was devoted to Orff's "Carmina Burana." I well remember Leonard Bernstein in 1971 being upset that his newly composed "Mass," which opened the Kennedy Center, was likened to certain parts of "Carmina Burana," a work he claimed never to have heard and which he said had been written by "a Nazi composer." Orff's activities during the Third Reich are the subject of much debate. During the de-Nazification period, the Americans deemed Orff to be "gray unacceptable," but that decision was changed after his claim to have led a resistance movement (though this claim has not been substantiated) to "gray acceptable." Whether or not he was a Nazi or a man who was just trying to survive and write music is something we may never know.

What we do know is that the Nazis used "Carmina Burana" as an example of how Germany was a continuing source of classical culture. It represented then (and now) a visceral expression of power. It became a successful marketing tool to assuage those who claimed the Third Reich was destroying culture. Its simple block chords and pulsing rhythms were a perfect representation of its time, just as Stravinsky capitalized on Europe's desire for violence shortly before the First World War with his "Rite of Spring."

"Carmina Burana" at first met with Nazi suspicion, but soon became a calling card of audience-friendly monumentality and power, and remains so today. Far more than Stravinsky's Rite, "Carmina Burana" is the go-to well of inspiration for those big movie music gestures we all know so well. Indeed, if there is one common result of the Respighi and Orff scores, it is that their musical language is precisely the same as any epic film score you can think of. The difference is that the two works played by the Chicagoans are classical works worthy of Carnegie Hall and movie music is, well, movie music, even though it was composed during the same era, and by equally great composers. That, however, is another story.

Hitler and his team wanted to solidify German-ness, just as Mussolini used music to do that for Italy. Tony Tommasini, in his New York Times review of Muti's "Carmina" performance, correctly pointed out that the Nazis considered the complex modernist styles of their time to be degenerate, but their policy was not an esthetic policy. It was a racist one. Hitler outlawed all composers who were Jewish, no matter what style they used. He would have banned Schoenberg's music even if he had written "Ach, du lieber Augustine." The fact that he wrote "Den Wein, den man mit Augen trinkt," made it even easier, since the German public didn't much like that particular tune. The pesky issue of Johann Strauss' Jewish grandfather had to be solved by ignoring it. Mendelssohn's last name was a just too obvious not to ban -- "son of Mendel" cannot be aryanized, in spite of the immense popularity of his A Midsummer Night's Dream. And that brings us back to Carl Orff, who entered the competition to compose a score to that Shakespeare play when the most beloved score by Felix Mendelssohn was no longer to be heard in any theater or concert hall in Germany or Austria.

And, of course, it wasn't just the Jews who were on the list.

Schoenberg, like Hindemith (Lutheran), Krenek (Catholic), Stravinsky (Orthodox Christian), and Waxman, Korngold and Weill (Jews) managed to escape to America where they wrote some of their greatest works. The New York Times reported on October 5 that music director Alan Gilbert "had mixed feelings" about speaking to the audience to introduce the Schoenberg "Piano Concerto" with his soloist Emanuel Ax. I don't blame him. It could, after all, be seen as a lack of belief in this music or the intelligence of the audience, especially since no one had to explain the Bach and the Mozart on the program. Whatever one thinks about speaking to the audience, the most important thing is that the Schoenberg was played and placed in the company of two other geniuses.

Probably no one needs an explanation of non-tonal music, or the 12-tone system of composition. It is one hundred years old. It is, for example, a harmonic world heard in many a movie score. Not everyone likes it. That's OK. Not everyone likes Mozart.

When Schoenberg came to America, to escape the Nazis and where he composed the concerto, he was no longer interested in being "Mr. 12-tone." He wrote what he wanted to write and that music includes many tonal (or post-tonal) compositions. The very chords and melodies that fueled his early works are once again in his vocabulary and in the most stirring and inventive ways. It's a pity this music is not played -- the "Suite" in G Major, the "Kol Nidrei" in D Minor. They are the victims of the modernists who wanted to pigeonhole Schoenberg as someone who discovered a complex world and never retreated from it. The composer, of course, did not view it as a retreat. His ardent supporters did.

Schoenberg's influence remains immense. He was a great mentor while in Los Angeles -- directly teaching many of Hollywood's composers and orchestrators who created important tonal orchestral scores, like Laura by David Raksin or the supreme orchestrator at 20th Century Fox, Edward B. Powell. You probably don't think of Schoenberg when you hear those glittering Rodgers and Hammerstein movie musicals, like Carousel and The King and I, but perhaps you should. Schoenberg's presence in Los Angeles (along with Stravinsky's) simultaneously inspired an atmosphere of experimentation and invention that encouraged a generation of young American composers, including John Cage, Lou Harrison and his dear tennis partner, George Gershwin. On July 12, 1937, the day after Gershwin's death, it was Schoenberg who delivered the eulogy on national radio.

And, finally, Arnold Schoenberg was a great and largely uncategorizable romantic composer. After all, he wrote an orgy in his opera Moses und Aron, just as Wagner did in Tannhaueser, and Saint-Saens in Samson and Delilah. In developing non-tonal works -- the works that have no "home base" -- he knew these works were not without meaning. The so-called absolute music of the "Piano Concerto" has titles like "A Grave Situation Was Created." When setting texts to his non-tonal music, Schoenberg, like his student Alban Berg, chose words about conflict, alienation, loss, wanderings and nightmares. There are no successful 12-tone comic operas. Schoenberg's Von Heute auf Morgen seems best suited to domestic arguments rather than any happy resolution. Most importantly, the 12-tone system is not a language but rather is a compositional process that insures atonal harmonic consistency.

All of this brings us back to the opening of New York's 2012-13 classical music season. Three major works that came from and were created as a result of the politics of totalitarianism, two of which were created to trumpet a triumph of art by Fascists and Nazis and one work of an émigré who composed, taught and influenced generations of composers and died an American citizen. Last week, the American Ballet Theatre opened its autumn season with Alexei Ratmansky's complex and brilliant new ballet to Dmitiri Shostakovich's "Symphony No. 9," composed in 1945. Hitler was dead. Stalin was alive. The story continues.

And you thought World War II ended sixty-seven years ago.