Arts Review

The Beauty of Half-Truths

Half-truths can be just as misleading as lies. A few days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine­—which Vladimir Putin peddles as a “special military operation,” a half-truth if there ever was one—Daniel Froschauer, the chairman (and a violinist) of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, tried to shield Valery Gergiev’s work as a conductor from his record as a Putin propagandist, telling the New York Times, “He’s going [to lead the orchestra at Carnegie Hall] as a performer, not a politician.”[1] A few days after, the soprano Anna Netrebko, among many notable artists, spun variations on that same theme, claiming, “I am not a political person . . . I am not an expert in politics. I am an artist and my purpose is to unite people across political divides.”[2] The half-truth that art transcends politics, or is at least apolitical, gets revived whenever the political going gets tough for artists, but it is wishful thinking at best. At worst, it is a distortion that conceals as much as it reveals—an alluring vagueness that beguiles us into complacency by not only denying the reality of our everyday experiences with art, but also much of its history.

Although it may be true that those who invoke these platitudes are not directly involved in electoral or governmental “politics,” it is disingenuous for artists to be so artlessly literal about the term. Performers have to be politicians, just as politicians have to be performers, a fact of professional survival of which leading figures in the classical music industry are well aware, for they would not have gotten where they are without a certain amount of expert politicking. (The ubiquity of public relations, corporate relations, institutional giving, and development offices at music schools and performance organizations is a sure sign of how professionalized such politicking has become in this business.) A communicative medium that relies on symbols and subtext, and thus eminently susceptible to ideological as well as literary misreading, the production of music also requires the coordinated efforts of creators, audiences, organizers, and institutions—in a word, infrastructure—to be disseminated. Under such conditions, music cannot but be politics. Unless musicians are content to perform or compose for no one but themselves, the transmission and advocacy of their ideas obligate numerous entities to allocate valuable goods—time, labor, money, social capital—that could have gone elsewhere. And what is more intrinsically political than the process of distributing scarce resources based on some agreed upon set of values?

To put it another way, my attendance of a Vienna Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall, part of the ensemble’s three-day residency in late February, amounted to a social contract. In exchange for the interpretive services of a world-class orchestra, I gave up certain freedoms, including a bit of my disposable income, my desire to hear another concert that evening, and my usual aversion to sitting quietly in a semi-dark space. The contract was handsomely fulfilled. Within hours of Russian troops launching attacks across Ukraine, the spurious firewall between Gergiev’s performance and political personas crumbled, and organizers replaced him at the last minute with a more politically palatable choice. With barely a rehearsal and the unveiling of a new Metropolitan Opera production just days away,[3] the indefatigable Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the orchestra in sumptuous performances of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894), Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 (1913), and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, op. 35 (1888).

With the prelude, Debussy symphonically reimagines “The After­noon of a Faun,” a poem by his friend and fellow Symbolist, Stéphane Mallarmé. A sensuous, undulating melody—an “arabesque” that sounds as if improvised by the solo flute—leisurely lifts, as it were, the gauzy curtain of the work. Just as Mallarmé suggestively alludes to the infinite meanings behind the symbols that comprise our material reality, Debussy translates the spirit rather than the text of the poem, which is nominally “about” the sexual awakening of a slumbering faun as he watches, or perhaps hallucinates, two nymphs. There are few direct correspondences between music and word as Debussy bathes his listeners in the warmth and dappled sunlight of a forest on a summer afternoon. The shimmering waves of sound produced by the Vienna Philharmonic, its players seemingly working together as a single, breathing organism, seemed to generate a humid, summery haze on a crisp winter night.

The heat emanated no less luxuriantly from the ensemble’s performance of Ravel’s suite, one of two derived from his eponymous ballet that Sergey Diaghilev commissioned and the Ballets Russes premiered. The famed Russian impresario and his troupe had also turned Debussy’s prelude into a ballet, premiered shortly before this commission in 1909. Diaghilev’s choreographer, Mikhail Fokine, constructed three scenes based on Daphnis and Chloe, a romance novel by the ancient Greek writer Longus; the Suite No. 2 consists mostly of material from the third scene. Ravel’s pastoral setting on the island of Lesbos—populated by shepherds, nymphs, pirates, satyrs, the god Pan, and other fantastical creatures, and where the love between orphans Daphnis and Chloe overcomes a series of setbacks—somewhat resembles that of Debussy’s prelude. The imagery and atmosphere of both works overlap, despite the differences in subject matter, but whereas Debussy’s compositional technique is intentionally blurry, Ravel’s tends to be more precise, even pointillistic. The phrases, rhythms, and harmonies of the suite are more sharply delineated than those of the prelude, resulting in the impression—reinforced by the Philharmonic’s meticu­lous attention to every musical nuance—that Lesbos is more grounded in reality, and its characters more human, than the dreamworld of the faun.

With Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov also rendered an extravagant literary source into sound, which resulted in yet another adaptation by the Ballets Russes in 1910. The titular heroine is the wife of the sultan in The Arabian Nights, who tells her husband a story every night for a thousand and one nights, each ending on cliffhangers, to prevent him from beheading her as he did his previous wives. Like Debussy in Prélude, Rimsky-Korsakov avoided the direct conversion of text to music. The four movements of the work are named after tales from The Arabian Nights, but they evoke, rather than illustrate, the characters, settings, and the sensations; and despite the structure, Rimsky-Korsakov deemed it an “orchestral suite.” Instead of a conventional symphony with sonata- or rondo-formed movements that focus on thematic development, Scheherazade is a symphonic kaleidoscope that relies on varied repetitions of memorable material throughout its entirety—particularly the sultan’s menacing motif in the strings and brass in the opening, which is contrasted immediately with Scheherazade’s lithe and seductive one in the solo violin—to tie the forty-five-minute work together. Individual instruments are given concerto-like passages to shine, and the Philhar­monic’s members were as at ease as flashy soloists as they were as collaborative ensemble players.

While these three works make beautiful sense as a concert program, their exquisite musical surfaces are, indeed, half-truths that conceal divisive politics. Debussy, Ravel, and Rimsky-Korsakov lived and worked during periods of intense nationalist fervor in France and Russia, and their music styles were as much the search for beauty as they were the explicit rejection of musical “Germanness”—two sides of the same coin. Nor were these culture wars simply about aesthetics, as culture wars rarely are, but inextricably linked to political outcomes.

In the immediate wake of France’s embarrassing defeat to a confederation of German troops in the Franco-Prussian War, Camille Saint- Saëns, Gabriel Fauré, Vincent d’Indy, and others founded the Société Nationale de Musique in 1871. If France could not defeat the German states on the battlefield, so the Société’s thinking went, then she would do so in the concert hall.

For much of the post-Napoleonic era, French musicians had concentrated on the production of monumental operatic spectacles to stoke national pride—French Grand Opera is yet another instance of art embroiled in politics—now, they were determined to best the Germans on their turf. The Société hence advocated for the production of symphonic and chamber works, which the Germans had elevated to the pinnacle of artistic, if not philosophical, achievement. The French, however, would counter what they considered the pompous intellectualism of their rivals with hedonism, creating programmatic instrumental music inspired by the classical beauty of Greek antiquity. Debussy’s early works, including Prélude, all premiered by the Société, showed how such ideals could be achieved. Exclusively promoting music by living French composers at first, the Société later accepted works by certain non-French composers, such as Edvard Grieg, who were deemed sufficiently non-Germanic. By 1910, many felt the Société was becoming too conservative and powerful, and Ravel led the founding of its rival, the Société Musicale Indépendante.

The political conditions were no less nationalist in Imperial Russia, whose successful military campaigns gobbled up vast territories, including in the Caucasus and Central Asia, throughout the nineteenth century. Rimsky-Korsakov, along with Mily Balakirev, Aleksandr Borodin, César Cui, and Modest Musorgsky, formed the Mighty Five (moguchaya kuchka, literally the mighty little bunch). Similar to their French counterparts, the group sought to extricate themselves from German, and for some even European, musical influences. In their case, it meant primarily the rejection of musical professionalization—the establishment of conservatories and the institutionalized training of composers. The type of instruction in counterpoint, harmony, and form that today’s conservatory students receive was considered too conventional and restrictive for the Mighty Five, who were proudly autodidactic. This new Russian musical identity also meant the mining of non-European folklore for literary and musical inspiration, the beginning of the “orientalist” fixation in Russian music. Thus, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade was but one among countless examples of programmatic instrumental works, based on fairy tales from Russia’s newly acquired exotic lands, that did not follow conventional symphonic forms.

It is no coincidence that controversies in classical music are usually entangled with matters of national identity. Once the “nation”—another vague half-truth—became the central axis of geopolitics in the nineteenth century, musical works and musical practices were appropriated as potent political symbols—for they were also vague half-truths. The rhetoric of the Société and the Mighty Five may have been anti-German, but in practice, their works owed much to developments in the German territories, and vice versa. Musical and otherwise, ideas travel easily. The ne plus ultra of Symbolism, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, required as much pompous intellectualism to understand as the ne plus ultra of German Romanticism, Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, on which the former is clearly based. The Mighty Five might have lacked formal music training, but they studiously analyzed their rivals’ music so that they would know what conventions to defy and how.

These half-truths stick as truths, however, for there is political and social value to highlighting national differences in music at the expense of commonalities. Western audiences—and I include myself here—still largely hear classical music from Germany as intellectual, France as sensual, and Russia as exotic, since we believe these qualities are authentic to musicians from these nations. It is a catch-22—essentially cultural stereotypes—on which the musical infrastructure continues to operate. The Vienna Philharmonic and Gergiev agreed to this specific program, for the conductor’s “Russianness,” we assume, endows him with expert insight into the music of the Mighty Five and the French nationalists, who were closely aligned.[4] Had Putin not attacked Ukraine, Nézet-Séguin, who is Canadian, would not have been part of the conversation for this particular concert. The same can be said of Netrebko, who is celebrated primarily for her roles in Russian operas.

National identity politics, of course, are not limited to France and Russia. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra arrived in New York City in late January to great fanfare. The concert marked the return of overseas orchestras since the pandemic began, and in addition to being the grand finale of the RPO’s seventy-fifth anniversary tour of the U.S., it was its first performance at Carnegie Hall in twenty years. That the RPO, led by its newly appointed music director Vasily Petrenko, chose a very English program on a symbolic occasion spoke volumes about how the organization identifies itself nationally—or wishes to be identified. The concert began with Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, op. 33a (1945), which was followed by Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, op. 85 (1919), and ended with Gustav Holst’s The Planets, op. 32 (1917). Beloved warhorses of the repertoire these undoubtedly are, but, like the RPO’s performances of the works that evening, they were safe bets. In the Sea Interludes, the orchestra captured with crystalline clarity the moody atmosphere of Britten’s Suffolk Coast, which had inspired the homesick composer to return from his escape to the U.S. during WWII (he was a conscientious objector) in order to compose Peter Grimes. Kian Soltani, the young Austrian-Iranian cellist, gave a ravishing and effortless performance of Elgar’s concerto, and the RPO was a sterling partner. Still, it is a dark work, filled with turmoil, that Elgar wrote as a requiem to WWI; I wish Soltani had made the concerto sound more difficult and, on occasion, more pained than pretty. As Holst had feared, the beauty and bombast of The Planets would overshadow the rest of his output—I have yet to hear any other of his compositions live—and the RPO relied on it to bring the audience to its feet. Such a concert program is designed to avoid offense, yet it is but a half-truth of English music, and even less of British music. Perhaps it reveals more about my own musical values than that of the RPO’s, but I would have expected the premier orchestra of the United Kingdom to have more to say about the history, or even the current state, of British music while on international tour.

Whereas the RPO limited itself to a narrow slice of English musical identity, the Philadelphia Orchestra, also led by Nézet-Séguin at Carnegie Hall, played a multi-dimensional American program, with the amorphous notion of an American musical identity on full display. The concert began with the New York premiere of Matthew Aucoin’s Suite from Eurydice (2021), which, according to the composer, is “an orchestral condensation” of his opera. Co-commissioned by the Metropolitan and Los Angeles Operas with a libretto by Sarah Ruhl, Eurydice updates Orpheus’s well-known tale by telling it from her, rather than his, point of view. Although the Met’s synopsis notes the work “is not set in any specific time period,” the parts that Aucoin included in the suite suggest a dense, urban jungle that only occasionally catches flashes of light. It is a setting perhaps lusher but no less lonely than Wozzeck, by Alban Berg, whose musical language serves as a basis for Aucoin’s. His extensive background in rock music, which can be felt in the suite’s instrumentation (heavy on the brass and percussion), pulsating rhythms, and constant ebbs and flows, reinforce the contemporary vibe. In the climactic moments of the suite, I could feel the floor vibrating from the incredible volume of sound the orchestra generated, as if I were at a rock concert in a sports arena. But to infuse opera—or in the case of the suite, programmatic instrumental music—with progressive and glam rock sensibilities is not only an aesthetic decision, but also a political one. Aucoin is but the latest in a line of contemporary composers seeking to define a uniquely American strain within Western art music traditions.

What makes classical music American has been contested since the early twentieth century, and the bookending of this concert with Aucoin’s suite and Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor (1932) shows the evolution of that debate. Whereas Aucoin hybridizes fin-de-siècle Austro-Germanic idioms with a genre rooted in mid-century Americana, Price does the same with parallel genres from the nineteenth century. As musicologist Aaron Beck observes in the program notes, the first movement begins with a bassoon solo that “recalls” Antonín Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, leading to a middle section where Price seems to be “musically painting the great American pastime: sitting on the porch.” The reference to Dvořák is apt. It is doubtful Price, born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas, would have met the Czech composer, who lived and worked in New York City between 1892 and 1895, but it was Dvořák who encouraged American, especially African American, composers to define their music nationally. Just as he had incorporated Czech folk traditions into his own works, he thought his hosts should turn to their native musics, including Native American music, for source material.

In her symphony, Price seems to have taken Dvořák at his word. The first, second, and fourth movements evoke pastoral American land­scapes. The second movement is particularly memorable, as Price weaves spiritual melodies, folk tunes, and hymns together to create a sonic panorama of a Sunday stroll on Main Street. The brass section of the Philadelphia Orchestra managed to sound polished yet charmingly —and authentically—amateurish, standing in for the local church choir as well as the town band. “Juba Dance,” the third movement, is enlivened by Price’s use of African drums as well as the rhythms of social dances performed by plantation slaves—the juba is a predecessor of “stepping,” the style of dance popularized by contemporary Black fraternities and sororities in which the body is used as a percussive instrument as well as for movement.

In between Aucoin’s suite and Price’s symphony, the orchestra performed two shorter, texted pieces with the versatile soprano Angel Blue: Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, op. 24 (1947), and the New York premiere of Valerie Coleman’s “This Is Not a Small Voice” (2022). Music scholars typically do not consider Barber to be a nationalist composer, but Knoxville is probably his most overtly American work. Excerpting James Agee’s poem of the same name, the composer breaks the continuous prose into lines of blank verse. Like Price’s symphony, Barber begins in a familiar place: “. . . it has become that time of evening / when people sit on their porches.” But whereas Price’s view from the porch seems real and unsentimental, Barber’s—and Agee’s—is an adult’s wistful remembrance of the ephemera of childhood. The enchanting simplicity of the music gives the poem the lilt of a lullaby, and Blue’s intimate, understated performance made Knoxville all the more poignant.

Conversely, there is nothing nostalgic about Sonia Sanchez’s poem, “This Is Not a Small Voice.” Through her musical setting, Coleman unflinchingly engages with the politics of our moment, demanding that we hear the voices of Black communities. Sanchez crams her lines with surprising caesuras, metrical shifts, and enjambments, compelling the reader to grapple with the weight of every word; Coleman’s discordant setting slows us down further; and Blue’s performance savored the piece’s cragged texture. The song’s intentionally irregular phrasing, awkward melismas, and startling interruptions—Blue artfully shrieked the distinctively Black names “LaTanya,” “Kadesha,” and “Shaniqua”—force us to confront the voices the American political system has diminished for so long.

I am by no means unsympathetic to the grain of idealism buried within the half-truth. Art can, on occasion, heal divisions, as this program showed. A Philadelphia Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall comprising exclusively of music by living, Black, and female composers would have been unimaginable even a few years ago. But the recent, incremental steps that have been made to rectify classical music’s painful past have only occurred after decades, if not centuries, of activism led largely by those outside the industry rather than those within. History has shown repeatedly that classical music communities, as part of the broader body politic, inevitably reflect the politics of the moment.
[1] Javier C. Hernández, “Valery Gergiev, a Putin Supporter, Will Not Conduct at Carnegie Hall,” New York Times, February 24, 2022. The article includes a summary of the political campaigning that Gergiev has done on behalf of Putin’s regime.

[2] Zachary Woolfe, “Putin’s Maestro, and the Limits of Cultural Exchange in Wartime,” New York Times, March 2, 2022

[3] Joshua Barone, “After a Punishing Sprint, Yannick Nézet-Séguin Can Celebrate,” New York Times, March 6, 2022.

[4] Since Peter the Great’s Westernizing reforms, when the Russian aristocracy and certain members of the intelligentsia began speaking French, the cultural, if not political, ties between the two nations have been consistently more cordial than those between Russia and other Western nations. (It is Emmanuel Macron, after all, that Putin requests to speak to during the current crisis.) Shortly after graduating from the Paris Conservatory, Debussy was hired by none other than Nadezhda von Meck, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s famous patron, to give her children piano lessons. He spent several summers in Russia and maintained a lifelong interest in Russian music, with particular admiration for Musorgsky. Rimsky-Korsakov was known to have studied Ravel’s music closely.