Just when it appears that the progressive imagination in America has reached the outer limits of parody, the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart ups the ante.
Capehart, never at a loss for eloquence, complained Thursday of “an off-beat cymbal in [Trump’s] rhetorical sis-boom-bah in ‘defense of [Western] civilization itself.’”
Capehart’s sensibilities, finely-honed to exorcise phantom offenses, found this line from President Trump’s speech in Poland most injurious: “We write symphonies.”
The arguments advanced by historical revisionists and cultural relativists are sweet melodies to progressive ears. But who knew celebrating the symphonic tradition represents, as Capehart puts it, “the loudest of dog whistles,” and is “a familiar boast that swells the chests of white nationalists everywhere”?
To be sure, trumpeting the achievements of the civilization that furnished the liberal democracy which gives Capehart the freedom to write inane prose is anathema to many of today’s progressives. The “Eurocentrism” he deplores is itself a Western concept, yet this irony is entirely lost on Capehart, whose grim mission is to ferret out camouflaged offenses which often require taxpayer-funded redress.
Capehart would likely find harmony with feminist author Susan McClary, who mused that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was a musical evocation of rape: “The point of recapitulation in the first movement,” she writes, “is one of the most horrifying movements in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.” (No word on whether the musical term “climax” is actually indicative of sexual intercourse).
Tell this to conductor Arturo Toscanini, an Italian immigrant who defied Mussolini’s demand to conduct his nation’s fascist anthem. This “god of the podium” would have been confounded to learn that the NBC symphony broadcasts he superintended, which extended the symphonic repertoire to tens of millions of Americans in the late 1940s and early ’50s, were race-baiting drivel.
How fitting that Beethoven’s Ninth, premiered in 1824, was performed Friday at the G20, with American conductor Kent Nagano at the helm of the Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra. Should Capehart fault European leaders for slighting works by non-Western composers, it will simply betoken the depths of his ignorance, already on ample display in a once-great newspaper.
Stephen Ambrose called D-Day “a love song to democracy.” So is Beethoven’s masterpiece, the choral hymn of which the European Union declared its official anthem. The symphony is no “dog whistle” for racists. Quite the opposite: It is a resounding trumpet for the oppressed which may impress us with the conviction — to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson — that one nature composed, and the same listens.
It is hard to predict whether Capehart would be “triggered” by the seemingly phallocentric reference to “brothers” in Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” Yet far from being a “lame” ode to “bros” (as Capehart might label it), the symphony gave solace to Germans marinated in the absolute evil of the Nazi era. Its power is universal: In Chile, the hopes of Pinochet’s political prisoners were kindled by hearing the fourth movement of the Ninth sung to them in the streets.
In the throes of impending deafness, Beethoven wrote, “I will seize fate by the throat; it shall certainly not bend and crush me completely.” In the realm of myth, music serves to revive the dead. But it can also steer an old self to a new life. Though one walks through the valley of the shadow of death, one will not be “crushed completely” — such are the inextinguishable messages of the Ninth.
“One cannot play Mozart and Beethoven,” said German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose controversial war-time conducting was finally a form of defiance, “and turn away from those who live and die for them.” “People never needed more, never yearned more to hear Beethoven and his message of freedom and human love, than precisely these Germans,” Furtwängler declared, “who had to live under Himmler’s terror.” His 1942 recording of the Ninth, its thundering timpani wringing every ounce of terror from the score, seems to echo the sound of the Allied bombs exploding around him.
Indeed, listening to Furtwängler’s unparalleled war-time performance – an assaultive outpouring of song which seems to bear the weight of the war’s inconsolable tragedies – is one small manner of bearing witness to atrocity. Those in the resistance who heard it live, and subsequently on record, must have recalled vividly the recollections which gave birth to the vow first uttered when the stench of Auschwitz’s crematoria still lingered over Poland: “Never again.”
Nearly fifty years later, Leonard Bernstein conducted the same symphony near the pockmarked remains of the Berlin Wall, memorializing the demise of another regime of unutterable evil (how quaint sounds the word, “evil,” to progressive ears!). Bernstein substituted the word “joy” (freude) in Schiller’s poem, in the fourth movement, for “freedom” (freiheit). A document of spiritual resistance, fusing poetry with power, Bernstein’s recording puts beauty to the service of truth. It is musical ambrosia for those who yearn to breathe free.
Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor, says to forget an act of genocide is to kill twice. Performances of Beethoven’s Ninth advance the work of remembrance, quickening our moral awareness while aiming to make good the democratic promise of “eternal vigilance.” Recordings of terrible beauty, as Bernstein and Furtwängler’s are, can impart Beethoven’s vision of the universal brotherhood of man, and help us never to commit the offense of forgetting the unforgettable.
Were they actually to listen, Capehart and other progressives might discern that symphonic music speaks a universal language which transcends the class, race and gender prejudices that the Left obsessively maintain are burrowed in every chamber of the human heart. To contend that art is a front for the will-to-power, the stuff of secret connivance to be “exposed” or “deconstructed,” crowds out the possibility of attaining what Saul Bellow called “aesthetic bliss.”
To be transformed by music’s “moody food” requires a receptivity which too many on the jaundiced Left lack — even as they champion “openness” as first among the virtues. Flat-souled would-be sophisticates who dress up their ignorance with the latest in postmodern poppycock will rarely be moved — or move others. Ideologies animated by dour resentments can never ignite the hopes of those who quest for democracy.
Before Chinese students erected a replica of the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square, nearly 30 years ago, they debated whether its features should be Chinese or “Eurocentric.” They concluded that it mattered not one whit. As military tanks advanced, the students blasted Beethoven’s Ninth over loudspeakers. Dissident Feng Congde said he wished the whole world to hear it, and know the righteousness of his cause. Beethoven was their tool, and their testament.
The Chinese youth who stood foursquare against tyranny wielded Beethoven’s music in a manner that contemporary progressives would find baffling. What a concept: The musical outpouring of a cranky Occidental embodied the deepest yearnings for liberty by young idealists of the Orient. Of Trump’s reference to symphonies, Capehart asked, fatuously, “What on Earth does that have to do with anything?” The freedom fighters of Tiananmen Square, who “seized fate by the throat,” would have understood that it had to do with everything.
Capehart and Americans of like mind and parched spirit, steeped in the corrosive acid of critical race theory and other shrill intellectual dysfunctions, should strain to listen to Beethoven as their Chinese brethren did. They might yet unharden their hearts to a sublime symphonic vision of human brotherhood that gives voice to the universal thirst for freedom.
Bob Stump (@BobStump) is Chairman of the Board of Phoenix Opera, a former statewide-elected officeholder in Arizona, and a retired member of the Arizona House of Representatives.