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January 4, 2008

Faculty Book Release: "Symphonic Aspirations" by Karen Painter

Ethnomusicology/musicology faculty member Karen Painter will release her new book, Symphonic Aspirations (Harvard University Press) on January 15, 2008.

Overview The symphony did not, as the story usually goes, fall out of fashion after 1900 in the heyday of modernism. To the contrary, it became a political stake, eventually revitalizing a generation disempowered by World War I. Painter examines how critics politicized music, especially that of Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner—whether to breed nationalism or to instill heroism. She exposes the debasement of active and informed listening in favor of Nietzschean will power or passive absorption. Her story has surprises: Mahler’s "liberal" admirers stressed the same virtues of unity and force that their nationalist and anti-Semitic counterparts heard in Bruckner's architectonic movements.

Significantly, Painter finds, the most brutal years of symphonic listening were not during the Third Reich but after World War I. The polemics exceeded those of any period before or since, with the exception of the Nazi Gleichschaltung in 1933-1934. Critics did more than composers, bureaucrats and politicians—even, finally, more than Goebbels and Hitler himself—to inure audiences to hear ideology in music.

The final question posed by her book is not whether music can be political, but how—after many years in which music mattered because it could affect national and cultural experience—we can listen to the same music today without sharing that dark heritage.