Music and the Politics of Culture

Music and the Politics of Culture

Music and the Politics of Culture

Music and the Politics of Culture

Excerpt

Philosophers and purists may reject the idea that music possesses any kind of 'extra-musical' significance, any meaning beyond what is objectively there in the notes, the form or the structural relations that a competent listener should be able to grasp. This position has indeed found some notable advocates, from Hanslick to Stravinsky and a whole modern school of formalist critics and aestheticians. All the same it is a decidedly counter-intuitive argument, maintained against the vast majority of those – composers, performers and listeners alike – whose experience tells them otherwise. In fact it is a doctrine mostly subscribed to by conservative thinkers who want to drive a wedge between musical understanding and the wider context of worldly and socio-political concerns.

Stravinsky's Poetics Of Music is probably the single most extreme modern statement of a radically formalist position that attempts to expunge all traces of music's involvement with a world outside its own self-enclosed, ontologically privileged domain. And as W H Auden came to regret his own youthful left-wing sympathies, so his poems increasingly aspired to the condition of music, an art of purely formal techniques and devices, one whose very nature saved it from the messy business of political commitment. 'For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/In the valley of its saying where executives/Would never want to tamper'. Music holds out the seductive ideal of a language purged of all merely temporal concerns, a language that could best live up to its own responsibilities by rejecting every claim upon the artist's political conscience. 'Only your art is pure . . .

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