The Hero’s Funeral

liszt eroica

You will recall that, in the BBC film about the first rehearsal of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the second movement — the funeral march — causes general consternation among the listeners. The Princess Lobkowitz talks breathlessly about picturing the funeral cortège, with black horses; the Prince’s nay-saying cousin, the Count von Dietrichstein, who has earlier dismissed Beethoven, is truly moved, even disturbed, by the music; and the Princess’s maid weeps openly.

But . . . who has died?

On November 22, 1963, Erich Leinsdorf, the Vienna-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who had come to the United States in the 1930s as a refugee from the Nazis, was preparing to lead his orchestra in a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov, when he got word of President Kennedy’s assassination. The orchestra’s music librarian, William Shisler, quickly pulled the parts for the second movement of the Eroica instead. Listen to Leinsdorf’s announcement from the podium of the assassination, the shock of the audience, and the way that the orchestra plays. Does this performance of the second movement sound different to you? How?

In 1944, when it was abundantly clear that Germany was losing World War II, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler led the Vienna Philharmonic in a recorded performance of the Eroica. How is this orchestra’s performance of the second movement different? Do you have the sense that it is informed by the knowledge of what is going on outside the concert hall?

In fact, Wilhelm Furtwängler is a controversial figure in the light of history. Unlike many of his peers among the German artistic and intellectual classes, he did not go into exile during the Third Reich.

The crucial question which would plague Furtwängler for the rest of his life was why he stayed behind when all the other great artists fled. The standard explanation is that he lacked moral fortitude. But, as so often emerges with ethical issues, the full story is far more complex. If anything, the opposite is true: Furtwängler stayed primarily out of a sincere, albeit naive, conviction.

Out of the depths of his cultural and intellectual roots, Furtwängler regarded Hitler and Nazism as a passing phase in German politics. . . . Furtwängler saw two Germanies: the permanent, cultural one of which he remained a proud member, and an irrelevant, political one which was a temporary nuisance. To Furtwängler, there was no such thing as Nazi Germany, but rather a Germany raped by Nazis. Furtwängler truly believed that by maintaining his artistic convictions he would succeed in resisting Hitler and upholding the everlasting purity of great German culture. All of his wartime activities were bent upon achieving this goal.

Furtwängler believed to the depth of his soul that music was a force for moral good, a route out of chaos that would assist the cause of humanity. In 1943, he wrote: “The message Beethoven gave mankind in his works . . . seems to me never to have been more urgent than it is today.” He later told the Chicago Daily Tribune: “It would have been much easier to emigrate, but there had to be a spiritual center of integrity for all the good and real Germans who had to stay behind. I felt that a really great work of music was a stronger and more essential contradiction of the spirit of Buchenwald and Auschwitz than words could be.” 

. . . Furtwängler had dedicated his entire life to perpetuating the traditions of German culture . . . . German music was the sole reason for his existence. Indeed, in 1938, after the annexation of Austria, the already overworked conductor doubled his duties by taking charge of all musical activity in Vienna, as he felt compelled to preserve that city’s proud tradition and in particular the independence and excellence of its famed Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which was threatened with State control.

The Nazis needed Furtwängler . . . Hitler deeply admired his artistry. The [Nazi] Party itself was keenly aware that Furtwängler was the foremost symbol of the past glory of German culture and that his loss [if he left Germany] would be a final blow to national prestige which would validate all the foreign criticism.

Nevertheless, it is hard not to see Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for Hitler’s birthday in 1942 as, at best, a misunderstanding of “the message that Beethoven gave mankind in his works.”

What do you think that message is?

As George Grella, Jr. notes:

Beethoven cannot choose his listeners, and so both the Allies and Axis in WWII thought he was on their side. For the Allies, the four-note motif that opens Symphony No. 5 meant V for Victory. But what did the Nazi party functionaries think when they heard Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic play the anti-tyrant Symphony No. 3 (Beethoven was a subversive, spied on by the secret police, and with public disdain for the aristocrats who had earned their privilege due to the merit of being born to the right parents), or when they heard the chorus in Symphony No. 9 sing about brotherhood? And why are the wartime broadcast recordings of those performances so full of poetry, so beautiful and emotionally intense? Those recordings are among the greatest Beethoven one will hear: does this mean fascists deserve Beethoven?

Authenticity, part III: White Tears

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White Tears, from which you have read an excerpt, is the story of Seth, a young, white, college-educated sound engineer, who accidentally records a line from an old blues song while picking up ambient sounds in Washington Square Park. He and his business partner, the scion of a wealthy family whose riches come from running private prisons and black ops sites, post the recording online as a prank, and call it a historical record by Charlie Shaw, a blues musician from the 1920s whose name they have made up. Soon, however, a record collector contacts them to tell them that Charlie Shaw was, and perhaps still is, a real person. So the novel is a kind of a ghost story, as well as a commentary on black music and the ways it has historically intersected with the American class system.

Hari Kunzru, an Englishman of Pakistani descent, says of his novel, “This is a book about absence,” raising the questions: Why were some black artists from the past recorded, and not others? Why are some black musicians remembered, and others forgotten?

In the video linked above, Kunzru speaks of moving to the United States around the time of Barack Obama’s first election:

The moment of false hope . . . for a post-racial America, the idea that we could just forget all this stuff and consign it to history, and then the realization that actually this history still poisons public life in the U.S. to an unbelievable degree . . . I was quite shocked by that . . . I wanted to bring my own experience, because I am an outsider, but I have a particular history with those questions here [in England]. My history is all about empire and dealing with that . . . There was a moment when . . . this romanticized idea of American history was very big in the hipster culture . . . [White Tears is also] a story about wealth and inheritance, and inherited money, and what . . . rich young people, whose parents have whatever to make [their] money, come to New York in order to convert [financial] capital into cultural capital.

What does Kunzru mean by “cultural capital”?

Read this fascinating interview with Kunzru on the research he did on the histories of blues recording and record collecting.

And read this essay by Rishi Nath in Africa Is A Country, which suggests that the real ghost whose presence hovers over White Tears is that of Biggie Smalls.

The line of the song that Seth inadvertently picks up is “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own.” This is probably a reference to this song, “Furry’s Blues,” by Walter “Furry” Lewis:

And possibly also to this country blues song:

Incidentally, in 1976, Joni Mitchell wrote a song about cultural appropriation in which Furry Lewis features, “Furry Sings the Blues”:

Old Furry sings the blues

Propped up in his bed

With his dentures and his leg removed . . . 

Old Furry sings the blues

You bring him smoke and drink and he’ll play for you

lt’s mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel

But there was one song he played

I could really feel . . . 

Old Furry sings the blues

He points a bony finger at you and says

“I don’t like you”

Everybody laughs as if it’s the old man’s standard joke

But it’s true

We’re only welcome for our drink and smoke . . . 

W. C. Handy, I’m rich and I’m fey

And I’m not familiar with what you played

But I get such strong impressions of your hey day

Looking up and down old Beale Street . . . 

Furry sings the blues

Why should I expect that old guy to give it to me true

Fallen to hard luck

And time and other thieves

While our limo is shining on his shanty street

Old Furry sings the blues

Near the end of Kunzru’s novel, an entire chapter consists of the repeated words “ha ha ha,” a reference to “The Negro Laughing Song,” a popular song from the days of minstrelsy. As Kunzru describes it,

The genre of the laughing song comes from the 19th-century. These songs start with a black performer singing about the racist things white people say when they see them. Then the song dissolves into rhythmic laughing. It’s the laughter of somebody who is trying to diffuse a potentially violent situation. There is such a horror to the laughter. The laughter is a window into what it felt like to be a black man on the street at sun down in the south during segregation.

 

I specified to the publisher that I wanted it to run as spread so that the reader turns the page and has “ha ha ha” on the left and right side. To me that is the heart of darkness, or the heart of whiteness, in the book. It’s the kind of horror that can’t be described and just exists in this contentious laughter.

A remaster of the original 1891 recording of  “The Negro Laughing Song” by George W. Johnson:

Another suggested playlist for the book is here.

georgegrella1

While I loved this book, my brother, the music critic George Grella (above), who wrote this book about Miles Davis, said on GoodReads:

This is a terrible book.

. . . Nothing against the ambition, which boils down to the question of authenticity, what it is and the dangers of pursuing it to the utmost level of purity. The vehicle is old-time American music, from poor Southern musicians, mostly black and mostly blues players, recorded in the 1920s on labels like Paramount. The characters who carry this are Seth (the protagonist) and Carter, buddies from college who use Carter’s family money to start a recording studio. They in turn are paralleled by the story of an older record collector and the obsession of one of his colleagues. Both pairs are connected through what is essentially an imaginary song from a pseudonymous musician, Charlie Shaw.

Kunzru is woefully unprepared to execute this task. The self-conscious quality of his research is painfully embarrassing throughout: the author picked up details of audio engineering, musicians’ names, song titles, and serial numbers, without ever picking up any understanding of the subject. He seems to have never heard the music in question, or it seems to have never penetrated his understanding—he comes off as the collectors themselves, obsessed with the completeness and quality of the physical object and not much interested in the art it contains. Seth and Carter somehow find themselves caring only about old acoustic recordings without ever seeming to find anything in the music that matters to them as human beings (that Kunzru name checks some well-known music writers who are features of the upper middle-class white bourgeoisie and can’t hear African-American music past Beyoncé is a tell).

This all turns into an overwrought potboiler of sex and murder, with a heaping condescension of the young white man finding, through violence and tragedy, the authentic feeling of being a young black man deep in the Jim Crow South. This is a terrible kind of slumming, Kunzru arguing that Seth has achieved this experience through writing that is nothing more than gazing at (and never putting the needle down on) the shellac grooves on a 78 side. The prose itself has the earnest, focussed, affectlessness that is everywhere now, spawned from countless MFA programs, and that is professionally smooth, bland, and that allows the author to disavow any specific meaning. That is dishonest, and the foundation of this deeply dishonest book.

We are going to be exploring the book in depth over the course of the semester, focusing, among other issues, on “original” culture vs. remix culture; authenticity and appropriation; and whether sound is created and perceived differently according to cultural conditioning.