A few years ago, one of my children played a piece titled Toccata (see ClassicCat links) by Aram Khatchaturian at a piano recital. This is a challenging, highly technical, fast moving piece that features heavy chord vamps, dramatic romantic movements, hammering tones, flowing falls, and wild runs that fly across huge swaths of keyboard real estate. It’s not something one sits back to enjoy with ease. It demands listener engagement.
Khatchaturian was born in the country of Georgia to a poor Armenian family. After his family’s native Armenia was declared a Soviet vassal, Khatchaturian traveled to Moscow, where he received opportunities to develop his musical talents.
As Khatchaturian’s musical prowess increased, he joined the Communist Party and wrote music to honor the Soviet Union. But the repressive government didn’t see his offerings as sufficiently patriotic. Instead, the government formally denounced him and several other famous Soviet composers of having “antidemocratic tendencies” in their music. Although Khatchaturian was later pardoned, he raised some hackles when he called for greater artistic freedom and when he wrote music about man’s constant struggle for political freedom.
Why is it that authoritarians tend to have a problem with music, even when it is designed to further their aims? Talented writer and acclaimed jazz musician Eric Felten asserts in this WSJ article that it’s all about control. Authoritarianism, by definition, is about controlling people. While music “affects people profoundly,” says Felten, music itself “can’t be controlled.”
After noting how music can be — and is — used manipulatively, Felten exposes why tyrants are uncomfortable with music. Despite all that we know about music, it still has a mystical quality that all of our science has been unable to plumb. It interacts with our emotions and our psyches in ways that are not completely predictable.
Perhaps the most significant feature of music is that it evokes different thoughts and feelings in each listener due to our unique backgrounds. Even in a stadium full of people listening to the same musical performance, each person is experiencing something different than all others present. The same musical recording can even affect a single individual differently at different times. Each musical interaction is in essence a profoundly unique and individual experience.
Individualism, by definition, is at odds with tyranny. Individuals are hard to control. ‘People’ are less of a challenge. As one tyrant is said to have stated, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” Authoritarians deal readily with the faceless masses. Any individual is a challenge to their controlling position.
The individualistic nature of music “poses problems for the propagandist,” notes Felten. My Dad grew up hearing and singing the first stanza of the Song of Germany as his nation’s national anthem. The arrogant lines, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, Über alles in der Welt,” (Germany, Germany above all, Above all in the world) grated on him.
Despite the fact that this offensive stanza was dropped after World War II and only the third stanza focusing on unity and brotherhood is now sung as the German National Anthem, the lovely Haydn tune evoked anger and disgust in my Dad as long as he lived. A tyrant, says Felten, “can't count on his patriotic anthem not to curdle in the ears of abused people trying to divorce themselves from the state.”
It would seem that music is at odds with tyranny. Thus, authoritarians will always have an uncomfortable relationship with music. We should be grateful that music is as omni-available as it is. It may be that every time we sing, play, or listen to music, we are combating tyranny.