Classical Music in Trump’s America
On November 24, 1963, two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Leonard Bernstein conducted Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony with the New York Philharmonic on a nationally televised memorial to the slain president. Three days later, Bernstein spoke before an audience of 18,000 at Madison Square Garden, where he delivered his famous words: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Bernstein affirmed that in the face of tragedy, we are not helpless: we have art, the utmost expression of our humanity, with which to chase out the dark.
The morning of November 9, we awoke to another tragedy: a devastating loss for democracy, civility, and inclusion in America. But the election of Donald Trump is more than a tragedy. His triumph is a frightening threat to the balance of power, the institutions, and the Constitution of the United States. His first appointments as president-elect have confirmed our worst fears that white nationalism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, extractivism, and authoritarianism will steer this country for the next four years.
We are classical musicians, a cellist and a violinist. The day after the election, we found ourselves stymied not only as citizens, but also as musicians. We questioned the role of our art under an administration that threatens our personal safety and constitutional rights, let alone our vision for a progressive America. To this calamity, playing music as usual seemed an inadequate response. Bernstein’s words, however noble, felt like a cop-out. Music “can’t stop the wars, can’t make the old younger or lower the price of bread.” There is much music can do, but Bach’s Chaconne wasn’t going to change the results of the election or bring people to the ballot box.
While classical music isn’t dead, it may very well be asleep. Often, we note that the circumstances under which our music is played are at odds with our politically progressive beliefs. We reinforce the class problem of classical music with shows whose ticket prices strain the wallets of all but the rich, and when quartets and symphonies are trotted out in service of black-tie galas and fancy benefits for corporate elite. (In general, classical music seems not to understand the difference between money and class.) When we perform “Aida,” “Madame Butterfly,” and other exoticizing Orientalist works without context, despite what we seem to have established about its dehumanizing tendencies, we affirm that this music does not stand for everyone, that we are comfortable putting people at risk in the name of what is considered high entertainment. Our most recognizable classical ensembles continue to look as they have almost always looked: where musicians are concerned, white and Asian—though orchestra leadership remains almost entirely white—and, where conductors are concerned, white and male (to say nothing of the classical music canon). As we move forward, we are frustrated that classical music seems to be dragging its feet.
Our question, then, is how to engage with politics within and beyond our industry. In part, the difficulty stems from the conditions of our work, which demands isolation. For a portion of each day, the musician is on sabbatical from the world. A story about the violinist Jascha Heifetz finds him locked in his practice room, where, through a single window, the young prodigy watched his friends frolic in the backyard. Fellow musicians cringe, but some might privately applaud the solitude that allowed the boy to perfect his scales. While much of classical music is collaborative, musicians are made in the practice room, where they are alone for hours on end.
We hope onstage that what we have crafted imparts something to someone, that our offering will not leave the audience, or ourselves, unchanged. Overall, we succeed. Classical music has not lived this long simply because no one has had the heart to put it down. Today we play Bach and Brahms because, year after year, their music has remained the substrate of endless reinvention. Music provides us with solace and strength, what Nietzsche called the “luminous cloud shape reflected upon the dark surface of a lake of sorrow.” Public performances in particular permit us to feel and commune with others. Perhaps after listening to Brahms’ Requiem (blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted) alongside other human beings, we reenter the world more prepared to engage with compassion.
We might wish for music to be universal and transcendent on its own. But this wish can backfire, trapping us in apolitical grooves that serve the powers that be. We want to avoid using music as only a means of escapism, to go beyond catharsis and towards a way of engaging, as artists, in the discussion about where we go from here.
We would be participating in a long tradition, as revolutions have historically come with soundtracks. In South America, nueva canción (revolutionary song), performed with Andean instruments, brought people to the streets in protest against poverty and imperialism in the 1970s and ‘80s. In Soviet Russia, Dmitri Shostakovich, who slept in stairwells so that, should he be arrested, his family would not have to bear witness, laced his music with coded dissent against the regime. In countries supporting the fascism of Franco, the cellist Pablo Casals refused to play.
At the moment, within classical music, we seem to have few role models for coordinated resistance. In the wake of this disaster, we have found comfort and resilience in the private spaces of our teachers’ studios—Jeremy Denk writes that “one thing no one teaches you is how much teaching resembles therapy”—and with our fellow musician friends. But, as far as we know, we lack a strong history of mobilization as reference for a movement.
If totalitarianism means the elimination of private life under the surveillance of a violent state, then a private lesson or practice session can be a symbol of resistance. In Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” (2002), the Polish-Jewish pianist Władysław Szpilman hides in an apartment as the Warsaw Uprising unfolds in the streets. He sits at the piano and pretends to play Chopin’s Grand Polonaise, pursuing joy even in confinement. We will defend these spaces in the case of autocracy. But we also want to know how to strengthen our institutions—arts organizations, orchestras, conservatories—and how to be responsive, courageous artists in the face of terror. Under a president-elect who has sued his enemies, and who threatened to jail his opponent on the campaign trail, we would do well to coordinate ourselves now, to stand our ground together.
If we wish to change the status quo, we cannot assume that music will speak for itself. Many of us are ready to organize for the Movement. What does that mean, for us? How can we put our art in the service of our politics? We can join the fight as citizens by donating to organizations, calling our Senators, vowing to accompany LGBTQ+, Muslim, and POC neighbors, and marching in the streets. How can we contribute as musicians as well, and challenge the affronts to our values within the musical world?
We call on you to explore, to claim time and space for bold experimentation even within this emergency situation. We must convene and be together in our confusion, hold discussions, speak with long-time friends and new acquaintances, gather in the streets. What will be our language for speaking about classical music and progressive politics in the way that writers, musicians, artists have here, here, here, and here? We see that happening a bit within our world (see here and here). Is there more? Where are those conversations or musical expressions happening? How can we bring everyone in? Can any of this lead to action?
In Music Quickens Time, pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim says that music reminds us of confluence when our instinct is to atomize our experiences. “How often we think that personal, social and political issues are independent,” he writes. “From music we learn that this is an objective impossibility; there are no independent elements. Logical thought and intuitive emotions must be permanently united. Music teaches us that everything is connected.” This is a marvelous statement, one that, as musicians, we believe in and are committed to making true for those who would hear us.
Yet we feel that raising our instruments is no longer enough. ¶