Music is about music—pure notes arranged in patterns by composers or improvisers. As such, it may well count as the most abstract of the arts. But music is often about something beyond itself, too. It can praise God or tell stories or paint pictures. Or echo events that shake a nation or the world.
In Music of Conscience (a three-week exploration of composers’ responses to social conflict, made possible with major support from Laura Chang and Arnold Chavkin), May 22–June 8, the New York Philharmonic offers a concise but thoughtful glimpse of such music with a message. As President and CEO Deborah Borda puts it, “We hope to explore, in many different ways, compositions that were created in response to times of social and political turmoil.”
For centuries, Western music seemed to alternate between service to God, meaning the Christian god, and secular music for dance. The advent of opera around 1600 brought classical legends, godly or otherwise, into the mix, but instrumental music tended to tip toward the abstract. In the 19th century, the romantic century, composers grew ever more inclined to transcend musical abstraction. So it is no accident that the parameters of the Philharmonic’s overview date back to the earliest years of that century, then on to the present and back again to Beethoven, the composer most identified with the transformation of music from classical proprieties to idealistic, romantic passions.
It is an oft-told tale how Beethoven, thrilled by the progressive message of the French Revolution, dedicated his Eroica Symphony to Napoleon but then struck his name from the title page after Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor. Still, the symphony, performed May 22–28, retains its heroic (eroic) power, which steamrolled genteel abstraction and ushered in the Romantic era. A nice footnote is that the New York Philharmonic gave the Eroica’s US Premiere in 1843, just a year after its founding.
Beethoven’s symphony was composed in 1803–04, right before he presented the first version of his only opera, Fidelio, then entitled Leonore. With its various revisions and multiple overtures, Fidelio did not formally see the light of day until 1814, but its essence remained the same: a tale of a woman’s heroic rescue of her unjustly imprisoned husband. It breathes the same revolutionary air as the Eroica.
The most innovative programming in Music of Conscience comes at the end, June 6–8, with the World Premiere of David Lang’s opera prisoner of the state. Lang has retained Fidelio’s overall story and instrumentation, but has rewritten the libretto and composed entirely new music. Still, Beethoven’s drama of heroic risk and redemption (now shorn of cheerful secondary characters) remains intact. So does the underlying message of protest against personal and political injustice. Lang stresses that his new opera is not a comment on any present political situation. “I’ve gone out of my way so that people don’t read this in a current-events way,” he said in a telephone interview. “I just want them to think.”
History is dogged by war and conflict and tragedy. In our electronically connected world, we seem more acutely aware of anything and everything around the globe. So today, extra-musical events impact composers even more immediately—both pop composers, right away, and classical composers, who need more time to create complex musical structures. John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, performed May 30 and June 1, was composed in response to the AIDS crisis. It is a grand and powerful work, ferocious in its anger yet deeply moving in its loving recollection of close friends and those immortalized in the AIDS Memorial Quilt project. While Corigliano composed it for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic has a sort of ownership of the piece: the Orchestra gave its first New York performance, in 1992, with panels of the AIDS Quilt displayed around the hall, and the composer almost grew up in the Philharmonic, as son of the Orchestra’s concertmaster.
There is other music in Music of Conscience: by Shostakovich, a victim of Stalin’s oppression; by Brahms (the Tragic Overture); by Mozart, whose Piano Concerto No. 24 counts among his most forward-looking, romantic scores. All this music, even the Mozart, speaks beyond abstraction. Following a compositional period marked by the severity of mid-20th-century dodecaphony, Corigliano emerged as an early post-modernist. Like many composers, dissonant abstraction is just another color in his palette, which he can blend with consonance as the circumstances warrant.
As I wrote in The New York Times when reviewing his First Symphony’s World Premiere, this score “addresses a terrible crisis of our time and also manages to make impressive sense on abstract aesthetic terms.” Representation and abstraction may not be so far apart.
John Rockwell, a former New York Times critic, editor, and arts correspondent, was the founding director of the Lincoln Center Festival and has published four books.