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Posts Tagged ‘politics and music’

“Amour sacré de la patrie” (“Sacred love of fatherland”), from the grand opera La muette de Portici, by Auber

Detached from its original context, this exhilarating marchlike number could serve as many contradictory purposes as could patriotism itself, teaching government and governed alike that works of art could be freely appropriated, in an age of mass dissemination, for use as political weapons. It became customary for audiences to applaud the revolutionary duet with special show-stopping fervor, turning the occasion into a virtual antigovernment demonstration. What the nineteenth century learned from the grand opéra was that works of art could be dangerous. They were dangerous not necessarily by design but by virtue of their ambiguity – and, consequently, the different ways in which they could be used. In an age of emergent mass politics, music had become a potential rabble-rouser. Opera could now not only mirror but actually make the history of nations. In extreme cases it could even help make the nation.  (III, 212)

Listening to this blandly rousing little number today without knowing its history, it could easily be taken as more quaint than revolutionary. Yet Auber’s 1828 opera was anything but harmless; indeed, with a message of both patriotism and anti-government ardor, La muette de Portici (“The mute girl of Portici”) stirred up all sorts trouble (and made its proprietors all sorts of money in the process).

The opera came to the French stage at a politically tense time, when the fear of another revolution was acute. The very possibility, not to mention the popularity, of this opera, then, pose an interesting question: in an age of extreme government control of the arts, how could an opera about insurrection pass muster with the censors? The fact of the matter is that Portici was a cautionary tale portraying revolutionary activity as an invitation to mob rule and chaos (or at least this is how the government interpreted it). They may be singing about revolution, but in the end we all know what messy business revolution can be. The message, as RT points out, is deeply ambiguous, and French authorities banked on a mass interpretation that would bolster state power. It would be like Glenn Beck doing punk rock.

Of course, any public musical utterance is an interpretive crap shoot. Independent of the composer’s (and the censor’s) design, a work takes on its own meaning as it is used by real people in their historical moment. RT’s last line above may seem like an overstatement, but in 1830, this tune indeed played a major role in the foundation of a modern state, Belgium. It would not be an exaggeration to say, as RT implies, that this music was “weaponized” by the French-speaking Belgians in their uprising against Hapsburg rule. During a performance of the opera (which the nervous government heavily redacted), “Amour sacré de la patrie” served as the cue (or was it a spontaneous reaction?) for mass revolt. Upon hearing this tune, the inflamed audience poured into the streets, storming major Hapsburg strongholds, including the armory, and eventually wrestling power from the overseers. This Brussels performance makes the infamous Rite of Spring debut look like a rave dance party by comparison.

Shifting gears slightly, reading about incidents like this (and any of the other famous riots in music history), I can’t help but wonder about the state of music as a cultural force today. It seems fairly impossible that any piece of music in any genre in contemporary America would have the social power, and the consensus, to inflame the passions so radically. Auber’s opera was a mega-hit: it spread to every corner of society, and although its message was ambiguous, its reach was ubiquitous. Is anything comparable even possible now? The way we listen to music today is too fragmented, too diffuse, for any one cultural product to take hold of the collective imagination the way Portici did. Revolutionary politics is still an active force in music-making, of course, but few would argue that it has the ability to truly shape revolutionary activity. (Try imagining a crowd at a Rage Against the Machine concert spilling out of the auditorium and capturing the White House.) Are we too savvy today to fall pray to musical propaganda? Is the music just not as rabble-rousing as it once was? What do you think?

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[Lully, Overture to Armide]

Opera in France was a completely different beast than its Italian cousin, with the glorification of state power front and center in its expressive agenda. Indeed, Taruskin writes: “Authority is what French music was all about, and Lully’s operas above all. They were the courtiest court operas that ever were.” (II, 86)

But they also represented a very particular, nay, a very French sort of political power. The French overture, a representative sample of which can be seen in the clip above, employed a distinctive, dotted rhythmic figure that quickly turned into “a universal code for pomp” all over Europe. (II, 91) National stereotypes, as invidious as they are, often have their origins in social reality, and Lully’s France provided plenty of cultural material for the essentialization of French culture by les étrangers and the French alike. For hundreds of years after the composition of these court operas, if a continental composer wanted to simulate Frenchness or simply represent a mood of stylized pomp, they simply had to draw on the musical techniques established by Lully and his cohorts.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, the sound of Lully’s baton still reverberates around the world. Today, over 300 years later, people continue to associate the French with pomposity and conceit, daintiness and delicacy (as well as negative, gendered qualities like “prissiness” and “effeminacy”). The fine French restaurant is a stock setting for comedies, imbued as the location is with a prim formality just begging to be subverted; John Kerry was mocked for his ability to speak French (though those who believe a Francophile incapable of showing foreign policy muscle is clearly ignorant of Napoleonic history); and jokes about French cultural elitism are familiar to every American middle schooler (and many European kids too, I’m told). It’s fascinating, therefore, that some of these stereotypes established themselves as early as they did and were reinforced by musical practices.

Why is it that French culture, then as now, connotes arrogance to many people? Is there an inherently pompous quality to the French overture or was it simply seized upon as a representation of an already pompous court/culture/social ritual?

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