Not long ago, the New York Philharmonic began a concert with The Chairman Dances, a 1985 piece by John Adams, the American composer. It has a subtitle: Foxtrot for Orchestra. (Shostakovich wrote a Tahiti Trot – his orchestral treatment of the popular song “Tea for Two.”) The Chairman Dances springs from a bigger Adams work, Nixon in China, an opera.
The smaller piece has long been popular on American orchestral programmes. And Peter Martins, the Danish choreographer, made a ballet of it.
In the manner of other Adams works, The Chairman Dances begins with peppy minimalism. It grows screwy, psychedelic, corny, yawpish and eerie. It is a strange and clever piece. And an enjoyable one. Few can dislike it.
What if there were a piece called The Führer Dances? No one would sit still for it, right?
I myself am uneasy with it. There is a shadow over the piece, for me. Why? Well, because of the Chairman: Mao Zedong.
If you’ll forgive the arrogance, I simply know too much about him. He is more than a figure in an Andy Warhol print. He is more than the Great Helmsman. He is one of the great tyrants, murderers, and horrors of all time. Even in the line-up of totalitarian dictators, he stands out. I know many Chinese whose greatest dream is this: the tumbling down of Mao’s portrait in Tiananmen Square.
Now, the rule is, you’re never supposed to mention Hitler. This is not a rule I always follow. What if there were a piece called The Chancellor Dances? Or The Führer Dances? No one would sit still for it, right?
There are no words to The Chairman Dances. It’s just music. Yet I have a hard time divorcing the music from the person named in the title. The piece leaves a bad taste in my mouth, I guess.
On another night in New York, Igor Levit played a recital. He is a Russian-German pianist (and superb). He champions Frederic Rzewski, another American composer (whose name is pronounced “ZHEV-ski”). Rzewski likes to write music on political themes: mill workers, prisoners, war, etc. He is a man of the Left.
Levit played movements of a piece called Dreams, which is apolitical, so far as I can tell. It’s true that Rzewski employs a tune of Woody Guthrie, the old singer-songwriter-activist. But it’s a children’s song, and innocuous.
Rzewski’s magnum opus is The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, a set of 36 variations. Levit has recorded this work to considerable acclaim alongside two canonical works: Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.
The tune came from Chile in 1973 (“¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!”). It is an anthem of the Latin American Left. Two years later, Rzewski composed his variations, in solidarity. Speaking of solidarity, there are other tunes in these variations – including “Solidarity Song”, whose words are by Bertolt Brecht and whose music is by Hanns Eisler.
A curious fact about Eisler? He wrote the national anthem of East Germany – or the “German Democratic Republic,” as the Communists styled it.
The very notion of this work – the Rzewski “People” piece – is obnoxious to me. But... it is a commendable, admirable piece of music. The variations are interesting. They are various, as variations should be. They are unified (like the People?), they compel. In fact, The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is one of the best long works for piano in the modern era.
Where does that leave me? A little “conflicted,” as the shrinks say.
Recently, I gave a talk to college students. Its theme was: “Cool it on the politics. There’ll be time enough for that later.” Not everything need be political, I said. There are zones that should be free, or relatively free, of politics – such as music. When I was a student, there was a slogan: “The personal is the political.” This I rejected emphatically and I recommended that others do too.
The students would have none of it (many of them). They had never heard the slogan “The personal is the political” but they liked it. Believed it. Right down to one’s musical preferences. This I found sad and a little alarming.
The very notion of this work is obnoxious. But it is an admirable piece of music.
In 2004, President George W. Bush was running for reelection against Senator John Kerry, and Linda Ronstadt was giving concerts. At each one, she dedicated a song to Michael Moore, the Leftist documentarian and a great foe of Bush. She let it be known that she was uncomfortable with Republicans and fundamentalist Christians in her audience.
Okay. But a lot of people, of many stripes, have always loved Linda. Does she really mean to kick them (us) out?
The other day, I was in a restaurant or a store when an oldie came on: “Steal Away”, from 1980. It is a song by Robbie Dupree. A marvellous song, it filled me with gladness and warmth. I decided I would tweet about it – and look up Dupree on Twitter. I found him, and read some of his tweets. They were scaldingly political. He is no fan of the likes of me, politically speaking. But I’m a fan of his. I tweeted that, as far as I was concerned, “Steal Away” was as timeless as a Schubert song.
Politics casts a shadow over so much. I say, keep it at bay, when you can.
Maria Chaplia • 14 September 2020
Maria Chaplia • 14 September 2020