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Music + X: Politics

Composer John Adams, director Peter Sellars, and librettist Alice Goodman collaborated to create "Nixon in China," an opera on the president's landmark 1972 visit after 25 years of frigid US-China relations. (Photo: Met Opera on Demand)

For the next nine weeks, each Monday we will publish a themed article as part of the Music + X series, designed to introduce you to classical music that applies to aspects of everyday life — politics, humor, horror, and the like. This week’s playlist, featuring all of the music discussed below and more, can be found here

When you think of the sound of politics, what comes to mind? 

The shouts and cries of a political rally? The steady clatter of thousands of feet marching in the streets? A single voice of hope, or a generation of grumbling? Beyonce’s “Homecoming” tour, Hamilton, Bob Dylan’s peaceful crooning in a time of war, or maybe Chance the Rapper?

What about Dmitri Shostakovich, or a Baritone Richard Nixon? 

While the mainstream music of politics is often held in the hands of present-day singer-songwriters, classical music has had a long and intensive relationship with power and politics. From the earliest symphonies to operas made in the past decade, politics has been present in classical music — not only as a subject of composer’s interest, but as a force that shapes the music deemed worthy. Today, we consider two works of music: one by a Russian composer under the microscope of the 1920s Soviet Union, the other by an American composer given considerably more leeway to comment on American international politics of the 1970s. 

Dmitri Shostakovich: “Symphony No. 2”

In the early years of the Soviet Union, the state was kept under the tight totalitarian rule of Joseph Stalin. 1920s Soviet government established a series of committees designed to promote government propaganda. Music-based state committees promoted music that encouraged the “general activation of… human energy with the aim of utilizing it for the needs of the Soviet Construction” — namely, they were to compel artists into producing pro-Soviet celebratory compositions. These committees exerted significant influence on Russian composers and musicians, including the young Dimitri Shostakovich. 

In the mid-1920s, the Soviet Union prepared to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, which catalyzed the Russian Civil War and the founding of the Soviet Union. The Propaganda Department of the State Music Publishing House commissioned Shostakovich to compose a symphonic work that encapsulated the revolutionary spirit of October. They further demanded that he include in his composition a poem by Alexander Bezymensky, titled “To October,” celebrating Lenin’s heroic role in the Revolution. 

Such demands made Shostakovich’s “Second Symphony” a headache to compose. The piece is only twenty minutes long, and it features no clear melody. In place of thematic cohesion, Shostakovich employs musical sound effects to create a symphony of texture, and texture alone. The first two movements are a cacophony of unrelenting noise, with the low strings grumbling harmonic tones and wind instruments contributing short melodies above the bass line. 

Only in the third movement does a political message emerge. The chorus enters, chanting the words of Bezymensky’s poem, after the foreboding blare of war horns. Shostakovich clearly struggled with this movement: the triumphant orchestration clashes unexpectedly with the quieter beginning movements of the piece, and the poem’s wording fits awkwardly into the third movement’s stilted orchestration. 

Yet, the political message rings true in the poem’s wording and in the mere existence of the symphony. The choir sings, “Oh, Lenin! You forged freedom through suffering / You forged freedom from our toil-hardened hands… Struggle! You led us to the final battle. / Struggle! You gave us the victory of Labour. / And this victory over oppression and darkness / None can ever take away from us!” 

Though Shostakovich’s later symphonies tackle with many similar historical themes, they are more musically conventional, reflecting how the Soviet government constrained cultural mediums into a carefully-curated political image. Along with many of his other pre-1940s compositions, the symphony came under Stalin’s fire, leaving Shostakovich in financially and politically dangerous waters. His later symphonies became more traditionally palatable to appease Stalin’s propagandistic demands, and reflect the transition of Shostakovich’s music from individualistically experimental into dutifully conventional. 

“Symphony No. 2” is Shostakovich at his most blatantly political and experimentally unleashed. Though his later works are musically intriguing and politically significant in their own right, his second symphony represents the lack of musical restraint that Shostakovich was inspired by in his earlier years, before denunciation forced him into musical submission. The sound of music itself, as these symphonies demonstrate, is transformed by the desires of politics. 

John Adams: “Nixon in China”

Nixon’s 1972 visit to China is often forgotten, eclipsed by the following year’s Watergate scandal. But the seven-day visit was the culmination of warming US-China relations after 25 years without contact, and historians recognize it as an immensely important accomplishment by the Nixon administration. 

Even so, a diplomatic visit is a strange topic for an opera, having no fantastical plots, magic rings, or love triangles. Composer John Adams, who saw Nixon at the time as merely the butt of late-night jokes, had to be convinced by director Peter Sellars to write the opera. In the hands of Adams, Peter Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman, “Nixon in China,” beyond dramatizing the events of Nixon’s visit, is a vivid study of the aspirations and anxieties of its central characters. 

Nixon, in his first aria “News,” flows from a keen sensitivity to appearances to a penchant for inspiring grandiosity to a quiet anxiety about the state of the world — traits grounded in study of the historical Nixon. Mao Zedong, as Timothy A. Johnson writes, transforms over the course of the opera “from a physically decrepit elderly man, whose mind is still sharp but whose body show signs of deterioration, to a physically vibrant and active leader who literally breaks forth from his image and takes command of the stage” (in the stage direction, Mao comes out from behind a portrait of himself). 

The striking banquet scene “Cheers” ends the first act in a manner exuberant and grandiose. Between exclamations from the president, the first lady, and the premier, the company erupts in repeated cries of “cheers!” that resolve to powerful major chords but do so in a seemingly chaotic fashion. Adams’ comfort in minimalist as well as classical paradigms combines with his subtle grasp of harmony to convey a dinner infused with both the celebratory spirit and the tension underlying the meeting of the two countries. 

The final scenes of the play are enveloped in contemplation and worry. Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier who, more than even Mao himself, is the face of China in this opera, closes the opera with the poignant aria “I am old and cannot sleep forever.” His final words hang in the air as a string trio fades uneasily into silence: “outside this room the chill of grace lies heavy on the morning grass.” 

It’s hard to imagine Shostakovich being given free rein to write an opera about Lenin in the vein of the one Adams wrote about Nixon. Adams’ work is about politics, and its writing was doubtless shaped by late-1980s perceptions of Nixon and China. But it enjoys a remove from politics, a freedom to look back upon events with more distance than Shostakovich’s symphonies ever could. Where “Nixon in China” is about politics, Shostakovich’s “Second Symphony” is part of politics. 

Watch Nixon in China at the Met Opera on Demand, available for students through Stanford Libraries

Recommended Listening: 

Contact Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’ stanford.edu and Elizabeth Lindqwister at elindqw ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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