Do you read music? Of course you do; everyone does. Every time you listen to a piece of music, you are reading it. More accurately: you are reading into it, because there is no absolute music. If such music existed, it would be composed of sounds out of context, freed from associations with words, history, politics, or meanings. But music is always heard in context: listeners bring to it previous encounters, sensory memories, knowledge of its history or composer’s biography, and the weather, architecture, or society of the moment. No matter how abstract the composition—how divorced from text or images—there is never a moment when music is not interpreted. There are no purely musical pitches; all are flavored and scented with their passage through time and atmosphere. Nothing precedes interpretation.
If this is true, how much more so when the music is played in a political context (witness the recent Lang Lang debacle). Bach’s Mass in B minor, BWV 232, can serve as a little historical case study. This great composition (“great” is a reading; it was not always so valued) has an interesting history of tangled religion, economics, and politics. Bach wrote the “Kyrie” and “Gloria” in 1733 as a job application. He wanted to become court composer to Elector Friedrich August II—and sent religious piece (Sadie 799, Stolba 310). The letter accompanying these pieces is exquisite flattery:
To Your Royal Highness I submit in deepest devotion the present slight labor of that knowledge which I have achieved in musique, with the most wholly submissive prayer that Your Highness will look upon it with Most Gracious Eyes, according to Your Highness’s World-Famous Clemency and not according to the poor composition; and thus deign to take me under Your Most Mighty Protection. (Bach 128)
Apparently the Elector read this document favorably, because Bach got the job in 1736 and wrote some of his most dramatic work for this royal boss (Sadie 799). But Friedrich took him literally about the “poor composition.” This piece, along with almost everything else Bach wrote, was but little esteemed during his lifetime: “until about 1800 there was, in fact, almost nothing of the whole of Bach’s output in print” (Blume 30).
Why was Bach’s music, later to be ranked among the greatest in the “Western” world, relatively overlooked in his own time? According to one interpretation, because of politics: “the powerful rise of national consciousness in the period of the Napoleonic Wars … taught [German people] to see in Bach the prototype of the German spirit in music” (Blume 37). In 1802, one Johann Nikolas Forkel wrote The Life, Art and Works of J. S. Bach. For patriotic admirers of genuine musical art. As if the title is not patriotic enough, he wrote: “Be proud of him, German fatherland… His works are an invaluable national patrimony with which no other nation has anything to be compared” (qtd. in Blume 38). Nationalism revived interest in the music of Bach; religion preserved it.
One religious denomination was almost single-handedly responsible for promoting Bach’s work in the “New World”: the Moravians. They took this quintessentially German work and translated it into an essential item in the American canon. In 1900, the Bethlehem Bach Choir of Pennsylvania gave the American premiere of the Mass in B Minor; eighteen years later, during their annual Bach festival, they also performed the Star Spangled Banner: “Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and other national figures” attended the concert (Bach.org). In 1925, “the Choir [was] chosen, as the most representative of America’s musical organizations, to perform The Mass in B Minor in an Easter Concert …in the new Washington, D.C. Auditorium. The Choir [was] invited aboard the Presidential yacht and to the White House to be greeted by President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge. The Choir [was] photographed in front of the White House” (Bach.org). And thus, by a series of beautiful mis- and re-interpretations, the German Bach ends up in the White House as a representation of American art.
There are many ways American presidents and first ladies, like the Roosevelts and Coolidges, have patronized the arts. Some of these are unofficial, but public: attending performances, visiting galleries, screening films before release, reading and talking about recent books, hosting arts-celebrities at social events. Some of these are official: purchasing and commissioning works, presenting awards, funding and conferring grants, underwriting public radio and television (at least for now). The White House itself, “the nation’s oldest important showcase for the performing arts” (Kirk xiv), is a museum and concert hall.
How do we read this? When a piece of music is commissioned by a Republican President, is it a Republican piece? When a sculpture is purchased by a Democratic Congress, does it become a Democratic sculpture? When a painting is hung in the White House, is it propaganda? If it stays in the White House when the administration changes, does it switch parties? Does art comment on policies, laws, and wars, or does art inhabit a politics-free zone? The answer to all of these questions is Yes. Art in a political context is open to political interpretation: but politics (and politicians) are also open to artistic interpretations. Instead of reading the White House’s arts (visual and auditory) as political documents, why not read the sum total of an administration’s artistic acts as yet another work of art?
It is easy to read the chronological collection of paintings in the White House politically: mostly landscapes and portraits, they are poster-children–or just posters?–for America’s beauty, size, diversity, and proverbial individualism (Kloss 14). For a long time, the quality of the paintings was of no concern; what mattered was that they presented idealized images of heroic presidents and vast panoramas. During the Kennedy administration, the collection came under professional supervision (Kloss 44, 46), but to this day “the collection remains unified by …art—as historical document, as decoration, and as vehicle for celebrating American values and achievements”; it is “documentation rather than art” (Kloss 23, 32).
But let’s turn that reading on its head. Instead of lamenting or criticizing the White House collection because it contains mediocrities, copies, and pastiches, why not imagine that the whole history of hanging art on its walls is a story—a well-planned narrative peopled by characters participating in an exciting aesthetic plot? They shape a nation; they act and write its legends; they picture it vividly; they appropriate the national composers of former enemies.
The current chapter of art-in-politics-as-art is no less interesting than previous ones. The present administration in Washington is well aware of the power of the arts. During his campaign, Obama’s image was broadcast on the iconic “HOPE” poster by notorious street artist Shepard Fairey. Capitalizing on the social energy of image, word, and music, the Obama White House has sponsored a remarkable variety of events, pre-packaged in speeches by the President and the First Lady. Interpreting their interpretation is an exciting exercise.
In their first year-and-a-half in the White House, Mr. and Mrs. Obama hosted a “White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word,” a dance event, a Jazz studio, an evening of Broadway music, an evening of country music, a “Fiesta Latina,” a “White House Evening of Classical Music,” and “A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement.” Each event began with the President or the First Lady saying something like: “Today’s event exemplifies what I think the White House, the People’s House, should be about. This is a place to honor America’s past, celebrate its present and create its future.” Then would follow comments about how the art form in question was uniquely American—country music because it tells “stories that are quintessentially American,” jazz as “America’s indigenous art form,” Broadway as the favorite tunes of New York City, and Bach?
At the White House Evening of Classical Music on November 4th, 2009, concert pianist Awadagin Pratt performed “his own offbeat arrangement” of Bach’s organ Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582 (Washington Post). How is Bach American? Perhaps because Pratt is African-American? Because Americans appreciate high culture, and Bach is sophisticated? Because Americans are omnivorous, and Bach is just another yummy dish? Or just because Pratt ended the piece by tagging on a little “Hail to the Chief”? (How dare he mess with the sacred works of saint Johann?!) One way to read this is that our administration doesn’t even know good music when they [don’t] hear it. The Washington Post thinks “The day’s message was, ‘Look, classical music can be fun,’ even though this message is also a tacit admission of the widespread assumption that it isn’t” (Midgette). Really? Are any of those the message?
A little music history provides another reading: a “Passacaglia” is “a continuous variation form” (Randel 611). Pratt was following in the tradition; he was improvising variations on Bach’s material. Bach himself was not above a little—or a lot—of brown-nosing. His Musical Offering “based on a theme given to Bach in 1747 for improvisation by that accomplished musical amateur, Fredrick the Great of Prussia” (Lipman 220). The King wrote the (boring) theme, and Bach wrote variations on it to toady to the king. Now the pianist Pratt gets invited to play at the White House and throws in his own little bit of butter-up-the-President. And the President throws in jazz, country, and Broadway to butter up the people. Or to be one of the people. Or to bring the people in. Or to condescend to the people. It’s impossible to say which, because it’s interpretation all the way down. But when this administration leaves office, its collective artistic statements will remain: a creative act of its own for future interpretation.