Songs of Freedom: Paul Evans on Why Music Poses a Threat to Tyrants and Overbearing Governments

New Statesman (1996), September 8, 2008 | Go to article overview

Songs of Freedom: Paul Evans on Why Music Poses a Threat to Tyrants and Overbearing Governments


When Valery Gergiev conducted Shostakovich amidst Tskhinvali's blasted concrete, he sought to present a humanitarian Russia, one that had brought safety and civilisation to South Ossetia.

Those with long memories will recall that Shostakovich was not always so favoured by his homeland. In the wake of the Zhdanov Doctrine, works such as his Eighth Symphony were officially shunned for failing to convey the blinding optimism of the Soviet Union sufficiently. The state valued music for its utility in shaping and maintaining the national character.

Jazz was despised by Nazi Germany, which regarded its devotees as dangerous race traitors. An absurd set of regulations issued in 1940 shows that it was not only the culture of jazz, but its very rhythms that were regarded as dangerous. One decree read: "So-called jazz compositions may contain at the most 10 per cent syncopation; the remainder must form a natural legato movement devoid of hysterical rhythmic references characteristic of the music of the barbarian races and conducive to dark instincts alien to the German people."

In authoritarian societies, music can certainly become a destabilising force. Like sex, it has the capacity to override the supposed rationality of any ideology. Tyrants know that they cannot eliminate music and instead seek to harness it--though it is doubtful whether their vulgar, bombastic marches ever do much good. Democracies are not immune from such concerns, either. For young nations striving to forge a coherent identity, music can take on considerable potency. …

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