Since the cataclysmic election earlier this month, I have struggled, at times, to find comfort or inspiration in music. With increasing apprehension, I wonder how music can make a difference going forward. We are on the brink of catastrophe. What can artists do with music in this moment, and how do we discern its limits?
This question is exceptionally relevant right now, but artists have been asking it, in one way or another, for a long time. The answers cluster around two possibilities. One option is to drill deeper into music itself, plunging into its depths in search of answers. The other insists on a temporary leave of absence – stepping away from music in order to attend to more immediate, material concerns.
The “drill deeper” approach unnerves me. In the aftermath of the election, I watched many friends post well-known words by Leonard Bernstein on social media: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Often presented without any context, the statement originated in an earlier moment of national crisis. It is from a speech Bernstein gave on November 25, 1963, to an audience mourning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Explaining his decision to honor Kennedy by conducting the New York Philharmonic in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony (rather than the more expected choice of a requiem), Bernstein cited Mahler’s “visionary concept of hope” and the need for “strength to go on striving for those goals [Kennedy] cherished.” Through steadfast rededication to the act of making music, Bernstein implied, the Philharmonic could impart that strength and inspire its listeners.
Even in context, this sentiment seems conveniently unimaginative, a rationale for limiting the scope of one’s action. A generous interpretation of Bernstein’s words suggests that musicians can transform art’s political impact by doing what they’re already doing – only better. But I’m skeptical of the idea that a more perfect art can really bring into being a more perfect union. Bernstein makes vague allusions to Kennedy’s presumably political “goals,” but the only goals he names are musical ones: intensity, beauty, and devotion. Are these really the ultimate aims of musical performance in a time of violent crisis?
(The musicologist Nadine Hubbs writes about another, more extreme example of this worldview, disturbing in its glibness. Writing from Paris in 1940, as war engulfed Europe, the American critic and composer Virgil Thomson declared that he had identified “the central esthetic problem in music today…the creation of an acceptable style-convention for performing Mozart.”)
I saw the second, “leave of absence” point of view represented on post-election social media, too. A friend posted “First Fight. Then Fiddle,” a sonnet written in 1949 by the poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks declares that music must wait:
First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string
With feathery sorcery; muzzle the note
With hurting love; the music that they wrote
Bewitch, bewilder. Qualify to sing
Threadwise. Devise no salt, no hempen thing
For the dear instrument to bear. Devote
The bow to silks and honey. Be remote
A while from malice and from murdering,
But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.
Brooks’s plan of action is the opposite of Bernstein’s. She issues commands – to fight, to carry hate, to win war, and then to rise – which suggest that the struggle for political change will be violent and all-consuming. She describes music as literally supernatural (“sorcery” that can “bewitch”), irreconcilable with the world as it currently exists. After we deal with more pressing concerns, we can bring music back to earth and rightfully revel in it.
Something about this approach seems instinctively logical, especially as the full scope of what happened on November 8 sinks in. But it is also plainly wrong, because we will never reach a moment when there is no more political work left to do. Even Brooks doesn’t appear entirely convinced by her own logic. She conveys her message, after all, through a perfectly constructed sonnet full of phrases describing the exquisite beauty of a violin. Her poem is a paradox: art sending the message that it is not yet time for art.