‘Fighting a losing battle’? Composers as angels of history

A couple of days ago a composer friend of mine Galina Grigorjeva (a Ukrainian living in Estonia whose work is highly respected in contemporary music circles and deserves exposure with a broader public) flagged an interesting article on Facebook in The Independent by the prominent music journalist and novelist Jessica Duchen. In this piece, written in conjunction with the November 11th commemorations of the armistice of 1918 and provocatively entitled ‘Requiem for an art form: Why modern composers are fighting a losing battle’, the author puts forward the idea that, whereas in the past music and poetry played a key role in helping society deal with the aftermath of the horror of armed conflict, 24-hour news coverage has now effectively pushed such artistic responses out of the picture. This for Jessica Duchen constitutes an impoverishment: ‘Where are the war requiems for the early 21st century?’, she asks (well, we  at SDG commissioned a heavyweight 90-minute Requiem from Pulitzer prize-winner Christopher Rouse a few years ago, which anyone interested is more than welcome to consider programming), noting that contemporary ‘art-music’ composers have been backward in coming forward in response to present-day warfare.

Although this thought-provoking article seems to have occasioned a fair number of undeservedly negative comments, it seems to me that Ms Duchen’s assertion is not unfounded and therefore merits a little probing. Are contemporary composers afraid of tackling ‘big questions’? Or is it unrealistic to expect a steady flow of new counterparts to Britten’s War Requiem (which, as some readers pointed out, was not written until 1962, over 40 years after the poetry of Wilfred Owen which it sets)? Are such works completely lacking in the current classical musical landscape, or are they perhaps present in less obvious guises – after all, as she herself hints, would it not be plausible to argue that the negative musical dialectics that became the language of the post-World War II avant-garde were in some way a ‘War Requiem’ raised to the level of artistic form itself?

Shostakovich-stamp-300x213A few immediate points come to mind by way of a sketch response to these questions. It is certainly true that today’s composers who have stuck with what is sometimes referred to as ‘serious music'(!) – or at least the more lucid among them – are by and large intensely suspicious both of facile lament and propaganda. Their reticence towards the former may have a number of causes – a fear of lapsing into sentimentality, or the false consciousness engendered by pretending that a work of art can actually catalyze genuine change in a socio-economic climate where classical music has become an industry, or sensitivity to accusations of voyeurism in the ethically dubious act of making human suffering into an aesthetic object. Especially if this involves appropriating the narrative of non-Westerners within a Western art-form. Equally prevalent is a distrust of agitprop, the instrumentalization and reduction of art to the communication of a simplistic ‘message’ (here Jessica Duchen’s example of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony – famously if also somewhat unfairly lampooned by Bartok in his Concerto for Orchestra – is maybe a little unfortunate because of its obvious though understandable use for propaganda purposes: his Eighth might have served Ms Duchen’s case better).

If what is required is immediacy of reaction to world events, it might be argued that popular song, because of its concision and directness, is inherently more suited than art-music as a medium for anti-war protest. Is it mere coincidence that the most recent track on Simon Keenlyside’s ‘classical’ Songs of War dates from 1969, by which time rock had made the protest song a genre all of its own? Here it is worth pointing out the difference between these two musical streams. I am not arguing that ‘classical’ music is by nature reactionary, but its traditionally lofty aesthetic ideals mean that musical responses to war in the classical tradition inevitably ring hollow if not accompanied by a painstaking (and time-consuming) working-through of artistic questions on a technical level: a lack of unity between form and content reveals the art-work as false, mere ideology. The stance of ‘all I have is a red guitar, three chords and the truth’, which works very effectively in U2’s cover version of All Along the Watchtower, can’t really wash in a classically-oriented Requiem (unless of course an ‘anti-aesthetic’ is a deliberate part of the compositional strategy). Simply tacking on a title or sung text related to current affairs to a banal musical discourse is a superficial solution lacking in the striving for depth which is classical music’s greatest asset – which is why Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory is an embarrassment whereas the unexpected and form-shattering intrusion of the sounds of war into the final movement of the Missa Solemnis is a master-stroke.

Attaining this depth furthermore requires a certain distancing from the event under consideration (by the time of the Missa Solemnis, the Napoleonic wars were over by nearly a decade), a distance which is in distinctly short supply in the contemporary industrialized nations due to the rise of round-the-clock news media. Indeed, whether it will return at some juncture is debatable: the clear division between war-time and peace has effectively ceased to exist now that we are instantly aware of conflicts the moment they erupt anywhere in the globe – there is simply no reflective vantage-point from which to contemplate what is effectively a moto perpetuo of constantly-morphing combat whose focus merely shifts from one hotspot to another, perpetually distracting our attention. Unless we are intentional about behaving otherwise, this pace of change makes it difficult for us to retain what was headline news even as recently as last year, let alone a decade ago. This evidently renders the psychologically indispensable work of collective mourning on the part of the victims – or soul-searching on that of perpetrators or guilty bystanders – highly problematic. Walter Benjamin seems to have grasped this 70 years ago in his famous interpretation of Paul Klee’s picture entitled Angelus Novus:

‘It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm'[1]


Paul Klee, ‘Angelus Novus’

It can be contended that contemporary artists seeking to respond substantively to the wreckage hurled in front of their feet are caught in precisely the same trap as Klee’s/Benjamin’s angel. The difference is  that the storm with which they now have to contend is not so much blowing from a cruel Hegelian paradise of the ‘end of history’ that cares nothing about the collateral damage of the dialectic of progress, as from the exponential rate of change both exemplified and propelled by the evolution of information technology. In such a situation, classical music’s apparent refusal to provide soundbites to measure in the face of contemporary tragedies may actually have more wisdom to it than it might appear. The organization of charity concerts for humanitarian relief or the organization of musical performances as rallying-points for community reconstruction in war zones are perhaps better forms of immediate reaction to human tragedy than the hasty composition of works attempting to deal with emotions which, as Jessica Duchen rightly points out, ‘can require time to process’. Indeed, it is perhaps the insistence on this need to take time more generally that can constitute one of art-music’s most valuable contributions in our frenetic cultural climate; one might say that the task of artists as ‘angels of history’ is to keep their gaze fixed and wings folded in spite of the storm that would turn their – and all our faces away from contemplating an unreconciled past whose pain remains long after the media spotlight has directed itself elsewhere. Composers, unlike protest singers, are not primarily activists; the chronicler working patiently to preserve collective memory for future generations and the despatch journalist trying to raise immediate awareness may have a common theme and certainly both have their place, but their timeframe and methods are different.

In this context it is wholly understandable that thoughtful composers such as Steve Reich should therefore continue to deal with World War II as a piece of tragically ‘unfinished business’ whose sheer enormity as a kind of ‘anti-Revelation’ of the depths to which humanity can sink defies rational analysis. Indeed, thinking specifically of the 1918 Armistice commemorations, the same might be said of World War I, not so much in spite of the fact that so few survivors of its butchery are still alive but because of it. I was reminded of this when listening outside our local Mairie here in Paris on Friday November 11th to a highly cogent and sobering speech by the mayor of the 14th arrondissement, Pascal Cherki (former secretary of SOS Racisme), who underscored the bewildering complexity of factors involved in the outbreak of the Grande Guerre in 1914 and the sheer absurdity of the pointless bloodshed of the years of trench warfare that ensued. In one sense our reflection on 1914-1918 can never be ‘finished’; to use the categories of the eminent French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, it is a ‘saturated phenomenon’ whose ‘meaning’ eludes us however much we may apply the tools of critical inquiry to it. As Marion remarks,

’In effect, in the case in hand, we have an overabundance of available causes, all of which are sufficient: expansionist rivalries in Europe, imperialist confrontations in the colonies, economic competition for basic resources and access to waterways, demographic pressures, territorial claims linked to the principle of nationalities, bellicose and revolutionary ideologies, finally all the forms of development or all the forms of crisis, including the anecdotal psychology of the players, even the least among them (Princip or Villain) etc. All these causes, in one way or another, competed; all are widely documented for us. The event therefore accepts all the causalities one would assign to it. But it is precisely this overabundance that forbids assigning it a cause, and even forbids understanding it through a combination of causes.

“This is the very secret of the event”- this is the interaction and unanalyzable intrigue of infinitely converging causes.’[2]

In other words, the catastrophes of history ‘saturate’, overpower our cognitive capacity and leaves us ultimately speechless, however well-informed we may be about them. Art in general – and music in particular given its inherent irreducibility to verbal analysis – can arguably come into its own at this very point of the breakdown of discursive reason, in that it has the power to evoke in a way that is clearly meaningful without necessarily seeking to explain. Here the stirring of the sub-conscious is maybe even more important than conscious reflection; this is perhaps one reason why musicians such as myself remain both troubled and fascinated by the strangeness of Viennese expressionism of the years immediately prior to 1914. The atmosphere of nameless existential dread evoked by Webern’s Six Pieces Op. 10 or the haunting and haunted premonitions of warfare in the poetry of Georg Trakl (1887-1914) may seem opaque, but its visceral power suggests the disclosure of a deep if disturbing truth in this art of decay and imminent collapse. To paraphrase some words of pastor and author Larry Kalajainen,  to face the darkness of our world is to face the darkness in ourselves.

Adams-Lament-cover-210x300Art has always done its work through symbol and allegory, and so if we are looking for contemporary compositional responses to the horror of conflict, we maybe need to look to pieces in which this response is handled at a deeper level through the retrieval of ancient material whose present-day resonance is all the more powerful for being left implicit. I have already hinted in this blog that Arvo Pärt’s recent work is a particularly good example in this respect, and I was provided with further evidence of this at the French first performance on November 4th of his Adam’s Lament, given by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris under Olari Elts, at which I had the great joy of talking with the composer for the first time since our last meeting in November 2010. As I wrote some months ago in the post Adam’s continued lament – a point of conversion?, the stimulus for the composition of this sombre but powerful and ultimately uplifting setting of a text by Saint Silouan of Mount Athos was a commission from the 2010 Istanbul Music Festival, which Pärt used as an opportunity to pursue his vision of East-West reconciliation (embodied by the joint Christian-Muslim performing forces involved in the première) by taking as his subject-matter the concept of Adam as the father of a universal humanity beyond religious divisions. Francophone readers can download the French translation of the complete Russian text here, and the first few pages of the score can be perused on the Universal Edition website, but I would especially like to highlight the section of the work in which Saint Silouan’s poem turns from the sin of Adam to the crime of Cain:

‘Adam knew great grief when he was banished from paradise,
but when he saw his son Abel slain by Cain his brother,
Adam’s grief was even heavier.
His soul was heavy, and he lamented and thought:
‘Peoples and nations will descend from me, and multiply,
and suffering will be their lot, and they will live in enmity
and seek to slay one another’[3]

If what we are seeking is a constructive engagement on the part of contemporary classical music with what has transpired not only in Iraq, Afghanistan, but also Bosnia, Rwanda, Northern Ireland or indeed any kind of inter-necine conflict, then we need look no further. Because no conflict is named explicitly, all wars are implied within this universalizing poetic narrative (and here Pärt’s work to my mind resembles René Girard’s account of violence in going back to a primal story of mimetic rivalry lying at the roots of human culture). If we are looking for a ‘message’, it surely only takes a little deciphering – all war is inherently and senselessly fratricidal, in that it relies on the logic of the dehumanization of the ‘enemy’ which is made possible by the forgetting of a truth which is deeper and more ultimate than conflict: that of our common humanity as created beings. Yet to acknowledge this commonality as more primordial than violence is already to identify a source of profound hope – for, to put it in the words of a celebrated and luminous statement by Paul Ricoeur, ‘however radical evil may be, it can never be as primary as goodness.'[4]


Paul Ricoeur


[1] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings vol.4: 1938-1940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard College, 2003), 392.

[2] Being given: toward a phenomenology of givenness, translated Jeffrey L Kosky, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 165.

[3] Archimandrite Sophrony, St Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY; St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), 449.

[4] ‘On comprendra que le mal n’est pas le symétrique du bien, la méchanceté le substitut de la bonté de l’homme, mais la flétrissure, l’obscurcissement, l’enlaidissement d’une innocence, d’une lumière et d’une beauté qui demeurent. Aussi radical que soit le mal, il ne saurait être aussi originaire que la bonté’ (Paul Ricoeur, Finitude et Culpabilité, vol. 2 (Paris: Aubier, 1950), 150).

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.