Magazine article Foreign Affairs

The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart / Toscanini: Musician of Conscience

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart / Toscanini: Musician of Conscience

Article excerpt

Western Europe The Politics of Opera: A History From Monteverdi to Mozart BY MITCHELL COHEN. Princeton University Press, 2017, 512 pp.

Toscanini: Musician of Conscience BY HARVEY SACHS. Liveright, 2017, 944 pp.

For centuries, opera was not only the most prestigious form of Western music but also the most political. Cohen observes that the invention of opera coincided with the emergence of the modern nation-state, and the art form's subsequent evolution has mirrored changes in state power. Many of the greatest operas raise profound questions of political philosophy. Claudio Monteverdi's operas portray the ruthless political intrigue that the composer saw around him in small Italian courts. Operas by Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau explore how absolutist monarchs, such as the Bourbon kings for whom the two composers wrote, can wield their power for moral ends. Mozart's three great Da Ponte operas trace subtle shifts in eighteenth-century society and question whether a social hierarchy headed by aristocratic men is truly consistent with Enlightenment values. This subtly insightful book helps readers experience these timeless masterpieces anew.

Composers have not been the only figures in the opera world to take on politics; conductors have as well, including Arturo Toscanini, one of the greatest in history. …

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