03/20/2014 05:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Truth to Power


The other night I heard a work that I had not come across for many years. It was a big symphonic piece that lasts about 30 minutes by the German composer Paul Hindemith called Mathias the Painter. (David Loebel conducting the NEC Philharmonia. Hear it here). As a musical experience it is very compelling and I wondered why we don't hear it more often in concert halls. The story told in the work, which is based on Hindemith's full-scale opera, is a timeless one: should an artist speak out concerning the political issues of his day, or is his main responsibility to serve art? (Critic Anne Midgette had a terrific story recently on this topic in the Washington Post.)

The Mathias of the title who lived in the first part of the 16th century chose the latter course. Hindemith (in photo right), who lived and worked in the first half of the 20th century, emphatically believed that it was his role to challenge the politics of his country in the 1930s. His courage and stridency resulted in his works being banned by the Nazis. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels denounced the composer as an "atonal noisemaker." Hindemith eventually escaped Germany in 1938.


One of Hindemith's musical champions was the great Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwängler (in photo right), who, in fact, conducted the first performance of Mathias the Painter and wrote a defense of Hindemith's work in defiance of the Nazi criticisms. Furtwängler elected, under compulsion, to stay in Germany in the 1930s and throughout most of the war, earning him the world's opprobrium.

But was that criticism fair or even deserved? During that time, he continuously provoked the Nazi leaders with his advocacy for Jewish musicians and music ranging from Mendelssohn to Schoenberg. He offered protection to many Jewish artists such as his concertmaster Szymon Goldberg (who later came to the US and taught at Curtis. His many students include one Nicholas Kitchen, leaders of NEC's Borromeo String Quartet). He helped others to escape such as pianist, composer and conductor Issay Dobrowen, who, in 1944, managed to make it out of Germany to neutral Oslo. In the 1930s, Furtwängler also donated his foreign earnings from tours to help Jewish emigrants, intervened for Jewish friends, and even met with Hitler in 1933 to try to persuade him to abandon his racist policies. That meeting ended badly with the German dictator and the great conductor screaming at one another. Furtwängler never joined the Nazi Party as Herbert van Karajan did, and he was well connected to the German resistance. Claus von Stauffenberg (played by Tom Cruise in the movie Valkyrie in 2009) the architect of the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944, was a personal friend.)

Furtwängler was such a thorn in the Nazis' side that Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel (SS) and perpetrator of the worst Nazi atrocities, strongly recommended that he be arrested and sent to a concentration camp. The conductor eventually fled Germany for Switzerland in 1945 (on the advice of Albert Speer, Hitler's Minister of Armaments and War Production) hotly pursued by the Gestapo. After the war, he was arrested, put on trial, and eventually exonerated as a part of the Allies' program of "Denazification" of Germany. (This was a massive undertaking to identify and classify those who had been members of the Nazi Party or complicit in other organizations and to remove them from positions of leadership or influence. The worst offenders were, of course, tried for war crimes.)

(Furtwängler's is a fascinating story, summarized in Wikipedia and elaborated in Fred K. Prieberg's 1991 book Trial of Strength: Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Third Reich. View it here.)


Today, Furtwängler's reputation is tarnished and during his short life after the War, he was denounced as a Nazi collaborator and banned from conducting in countries such as America. It was only through the passionate championship of the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin that he enjoyed some partial reinstatement, but controversy has continued to cloud his legacy. "Yehudi" means "the Jew" and this name was chosen by Menuhin's mother after a racist incident in San Francisco as an unequivocal declaration of his lineage. The friendship and artistic collaboration between the violinist and Furtwängler can be heard in their many recordings. Menuhin's courage in advocating for the conducting against some of the fiercest and most emotional opposition in Europe was powerful. See a video clip of Menuhin talking about the conductor. Furtwängler's musical reputation, of course, is magisterial. And his interpretations of German repertory, Brahms and Beethoven in particular, are among the greatest of all musical artists.


Of course, other artists have come through intense periods of political upheaval and destruction with reputations not just intact but enhanced. The Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich is a case in point. In the 1980s, he sheltered the great dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitzyn (photo right) from Soviet persecution, earning him and his wife, the great Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, eventual banishment from the country of their birth. The English composer Sir Michael Tippett, an ardent pacifist, was imprisoned by the British authorities in 1944 for refusing to perform alternative service during World War II. Shostakovich continued to compose and survive through the worst times of the Stalinist purges and many of his works, particularly the symphonies, are now recognized to contain subtexts that express the composer's bitter dissent.


Aaron Copland fought brilliantly against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and McCarthy-era witch hunts (which lasted from the late 1930s into the late 1950s) in the US. (Senator Joseph McCarthy in photo). Bertolt Brecht and Charlie Chaplin found themselves exiled in Europe as the result of the same witch hunt, the former fleeing the FBI and HUAC, and the latter refused a reentry visa while in London on a promotional tour. Menuhin inveighed against the Soviet authorities on an almost daily basis and he was as well an outspoken anti-Zionist who criticized Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

So what conclusions can we draw from these examples when considering the current tumult in Venezuela? Some Venezuelan artists have encouraged their colleagues to denounce the present government, its suppression of dissent, and the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions. But one has to ask: Is this an evil regime? Or just a misguided, incompetent one? Has it built gulags and concentration camps? Has repression become its satanic twin, persecution? With Venezuela, we see a socialist government doing what socialist governments have done over the last 100 years. They impose "common ownership on the means of production, " (what was always referred to by the British Labour Party constitution as Clause IV and literally taken from Marxist doctrine. It is this clause that provides the foundation for nationalization of industries and the resultant turmoil of command economies.) It's big government, huge government, without the economic and business expertise, without the efficiencies stimulated by the profit motive to capitalize on the amazing opportunities offered by enormous oil deposits and production.


In addition to the bitterness generated by the current strife, the people of Venezuela will look back on this period as one of economic stagnation and collapse, which should instead have been a time of increasing prosperity, social development, domestic peace, and South American leadership. They will see it as a ruinously wasted and squandered opportunity. Indeed, many Venezuelans -- including the poor -- are currently doing so. In the face of 50% inflation, falling oil output, lack of food, shortages of medicine and staples like diapers and toilet paper, and murderous violence on the streets, even previous chavistas are saying "Ya esta bueno ya." "Roughly translated as 'Enough already', the slogan captures a wide-spread sense of discontent and growing uncertainty over the country's future," according to The Guardian.

Yet, there are still elections. Democracy nominally exists. People have been allowed to demonstrate on the streets, although in recent weeks we have seen the brutality of the National Guard combined with the violent behavior of pro-government supporters, which has resulted in 28 deaths (as of March 15).


It is an ugly situation. And we at NEC, which has a long and affectionate relationship with the musicians of Venezuela, hope that it will be resolved soon rather than spiral into civil war. For us, the best promise for Venezuelan society is that most positive and egalitarian program for social change, the intensive music teaching program known universally as El Sistema. Begun in a garage 35 years ago with fewer than 20 youngsters, it now serves more than 300,000 young musicians a year, many of whom are drawn from the barrios (the most impoverished sector of the society). The program has ignited interest in teaching classical music globally and it has spawned "El Sistema-inspired" programs in the US, Korea, Europe and South Africa. The Venezuelan government supports and pays for El Sistema as a social development program, not an arts or education program. This was a position hard fought for by founder Dr. José Antonio Abreu over many years of brilliantly orchestrated diplomacy and negotiation.


With the current political upheaval in Venezuela, many are debating whether this is the time for the program's leadership to criticize the government. This would undoubtedly have the effect of putting at risk the future of government support for El Sistema and with that the very real benefit to so many young people. What is the pragmatic answer to this challenge? We are not facing the same situation as 1930s Europe. This is not Stalinist Russia. This is not America gone crazy in the McCarthy era. This is not even contemporary Russia strong-arming countries like Georgia or Ukraine. It is a country confronting its dismal economic and political reality and the frustration is boiling over.

Dr. Abreu has remained silent on the matter. The same is true of Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel (in photo above), the most famous El Sistema graduate, who has been challenged to speak out but has offered only one diplomatic statement deploring violence. Dudamel, in particular, has been castigated, with one critic calling him a "moral midget." But the question remains: is it better for them to take the personal criticism and even vilification than to do damage to El Sistema? Indeed, it may very well be that El Sistema will serve as one of the major underpinnings for the healing and regeneration of Venezuelan society.