Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

How Dare You Strike That Chord!

Andante, July 2002

Was Bach an anti-Semite? Does John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer romanticize terrorism? Is Philip Glass’s Hydrogen Jukebox immoral? Do you feel “violated” by performances of Wagner or Strauss — or by suggestions that their work be banned?

It might seem hard to believe, but there was once a time when classical music audiences could settle into upholstered chairs and leave behind the battles that raged just outside the concert hall walls. That era is now long gone. Like literature and the visual arts in the previous century, classical music has come under the harsh gaze of a new breed of cultural critic, whose investigations range far beyond counterpoint and sonata form. We now regularly interrogate music for its association with society’s deepest, darkest and often unexamined values.

Straus' Salome directed by Atom Egoyan at the Canadian Opera Company.Very few composers have remained immune from such scrutiny. Choirs used to spend the Easter season rehearsing Bach; now they’re just as likely to be rehearsing a dispute over whether Bach’s setting of the St. John Passion expresses anti-Semitism. Last December in the New York Times, Richard Taruskin argued that John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer catered to the “anti-American, anti-Semitic, [and] anti-bourgeois” prejudices of its European audiences. More recently, Canadian critic (and occasional andante contributor) Tamara Bernstein took on film director Atom Egoyan, whose staging of Richard Strauss’s Salome allegedly “pump[ed] up the opera’s anti-Semitic elements.”

Of course, outrage and scandal are no strangers to the concert hall. Even Beethoven and Tchaikovsky earned their share of darts as well as laurels. Bruckner was once called the “greatest living musical peril” by a contemporary critic, while Wagner was crowned the “Antichrist incarnate of art.” Works by Debussy and Stravinsky were famously jeered by opening-night audiences and critics.

But such controversies have little in common with today’s disputes. It was one thing for Louis Spohr to deride Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as “ugly and in such bad taste”; it’s quite another for musicologist Susan McClary to compare it to the “throttling, murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.” Stravinsky was once associated with the “cult of the wrong note,” whereas nowadays he’s more likely to be associated with fascism. Today’s critics effortlessly — some might say recklessly — move from the sonic to the semantic. Music has become yet another arena for the so-called “culture wars.”

Many music-lovers undoubtedly find this distressing, and consider it just another act in the wearisome ideological circus of our time. There is, after all, a three-ring predictability to these disputes. They begin, as all such cultural wars begin, with a victim. “This music is offensive and hurtful to me,” said an American college student who refused to perform the St. John Passion in 1995. Tamara Bernstein wrote that she left “in a rage … feeling violated as both a woman and a Jew” after watching Salome. Last month in Australia, Christian students and staff at a music conservatory were similarly offended by the positive treatment of homosexuality in Hydrogen Jukebox.

John Adams' Death of Klinghoffer at the San Francisco Opera. Photo by Marty Sohl.And for every victim, there must of course be recognition and restitution. Some have suggested that Bach’s libretto should be altered to reflect modern sensitivities. Bernstein referred to the anti-Semitism in Salome being “one of several arguments in favour of mothballing this opera.” The Boston Symphony Orchestra cancelled its performance of excerpts from Klinghoffer last year, citing the sensitivities of an American audience in the wake of the tragedy of September 11.

And finally, predictably, come charges of “censorship” and “McCarthyism,” and an embarrassing peacock-like display of one’s own victim credentials. “Ms. Bernstein’s comments border on the libellous,” huffed Egoyan, “and I expect an apology.” He found it “distressing that a serious music critic could even consider ‘mothballing’ one of the most revolutionary masterpieces of modern opera,” and that many would feel “artistically violated” by such a suggestion. On John Adams’ Web site, one supporter has accused Taruskin of “siding with Goebbels … in telling artists that they cannot do as they please.” Martin Kettle suggested in the Guardian that there were “uncomfortable echoes of the McCarthy era” in Taruskin’s attack on Klinghoffer. Adams himself suggested a different comparison: “You feel like you are being bombed from 30,000 feet by a B-52,” he complained, apparently referring to the victims of war in Afghanistan.

Perhaps it’s time for a little common sense. When audiences in democratic countries find themselves “offended” by music and art, there are a number of possible responses. Far too often, attempting to bowdlerize, sanitize, suppress or ban a work has been the first response, rather than the last. There are reasons why democracies must resist such efforts, and defending freedom of artistic expression needn’t imply an endorsement of a composer’s message.

On the other hand, an audience also has sacrosanct rights in a democracy — to object, to call for restraint and sensitivity, to expose an odious agenda. Airing such concerns shouldn’t provoke the charge of supporting Goebbels orZhdanov , which is simply a strategy for silencing one’s opponents without addressing their complaints. If recent critics have taught us anything, it is that music is not simply an aesthetic phenomenon, but also a cultural product deeply rooted in our social and political life. To the extent that it participates in our culture, it will be subject to the same pitiless analyses and scorching criticism that helps create a thriving democracy.

Which suggests a solution — one as old as democracy itself. Why not try talking about these issues? An excellent precedent has already been set by the annual uproar over performances of Bach’s St. John Passion. Concerts today regularly feature discussion panels, pre-concert lectures, and program notes that address the troubling issue of “anti-Judaism” in Bach’s work, and why this continues to matter. Some might object that such discussions detract from the majesty of Bach’s art, which is found in the “music itself.” But this is wrong on many levels, not the least of which is that Bach himself would have rejected a “purely aesthetic” approach to his work.

Moreover, the claim also perversely assumes that a work can only be diminished by such extra-musical associations. Quite the opposite is true. In a much-praised 1998 book, Michael Marissen gave careful consideration to the theological meditation he found in Bach’s St. John Passion. Marissen acknowledges the terrible history of European anti-Semitism, which often found theological justification in the Gospel of St. John. But he also points out that Bach seemed to reject Jewish responsibility for Christ’s death, and in fact altered certain passages in his source material to eliminate specifically Jewish references. “I, I and my sins they have caused the sorrow that strikes you,” sings Bach’s chorus. Knowing this can only deepen our understanding and experience of a work, providing listeners with a rich and troubling historical backdrop for the sumptuous magnificence of the score. Is there anything better than that?

If there is any cause for optimism in these arguments, it is that music still has the power to move us, to trouble us and even to offend us. Music matters to us, and reaches us in places far beyond mere aesthetic experience. For far too long, we have expected far too little from the music we treasure, believing that it needed to be insulated and protected from the outside world. We now seem ready to begin addressing one the most fundamental questions faced by artists throughout the centuries — how to balance the creative impulse with the need to communicate broadly, intelligently and, yes, responsibly with one’s audience.