It’s confession time. Last week, I judged a book by its cover. After reading a blurb in the New Yorker, I decided that a new release looked too sensational and ill-conceived to pass up. The backdrop of Lauren Belfer’s And After the Fire is pretty far-out, even kitschy at first glance: a lost manuscript by Bach is discovered, containing a cantata with an explicitly and undeniably antisemitic text. Cha-ching! I had to buy it. Much like the priceless instrument in the film The Red Violon, the manuscript’s history and past ownership makes up the plot of the book, from its passage to one of Bach’s son to members of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy family, and then eventually into the hands of a Jewish-American serviceman in WWII. Assuming that the plot would be anti-historical at best, I also expected to witness a myriad misplaced presumptions about music, particularly of that of Bach. I admit I was also suspicious of a novel potentially connecting a fictitious piece of music to potentially fictitious victims of the Holocaust. The profitability of Final Solution in literature and culture has come to constitute its own economy in the eyes of some scholars, as there have been many authors who have trod with little care, even to the point of exploitation.
After finishing the novel, I felt the New Yorker blurb did the book a disservice. Maybe it was just my own preconceptions, but And After the Fire to be a pretty far cry from its description in the end (or as I perceived it, at least). I also felt pretty terrible for assuming that a book about classical music written by a non-musician would be insipid and useless. In Belfer’s novel, there is no sensationalist story of how the piece was written, no portrayal of Bach as an explicit racist, no philosophical considerations of restitution of property of victims of the Holocaust, etc. The story is that of a Jewish woman from New York who inherits a priceless cultural artifact that is not only of no cultural value to her, but precisely the opposite: the work contains a message intimately connected to her own family’s victimization in the Holocaust. The book doesn’t ask whether or not Bach was an antisemite (sorry, but he probably was), but simply asks that if he were, what could/should this woman do? There’s no immediate meta-message or political slant. It’s the story of one person’s complicated connection with a piece of music.
The thoroughness of Belfer’s research is actually pretty astounding, containing a bibliography and an extended afterword precisely detailing which characters are and are not fictional. Clearly, she’s aware not only of the touchy subject, but of obtuse Umberto Eco-devouring pedants like me. I won’t delve into the details of the plot and narrative, as this isn’t a review as such. However, I will not refrain from praising this author for addressing a “what if” question that is not invented, but wholly apparent and pressing in the classical music world today: what if there are great pieces of music which are offensive? The only problem I have with the novel is that this question isn’t really a question really; there are distasteful pieces of music still performed today that don’t simply have bearings on the past, but whose context is continually repercussive. The fact that Belfer invented a magnanimous context to raise the issue is the nature of historical fiction, granted, and using the music of Bach as a potential focal point is certainly a great way to explore the deafening silence in the classical music world about the profitability and glorification of works that are not only complex, but even potentially hurtful. Despite her tale of a personal story, the implications turned out to be far greater, at least for me.
I’ll back up. I know that I am sounding a like a real Obie right now, considering only how “offensive” things might be. If any of you read the New Yorker last week, you will have undoubtedly seen Nathan Heller’s report on the academic climate at Oberlin, currently navigating its own issues with institutional marginalization of African Americans, Latinos and Asians, and now Jewish Americans. As the article accurately points out, Oberlin is a touchy school. The most academically intense course I took there not only entailed intense historical and formal analyses of seven of Mozart’s operas, but also asked students assess whether or not Mozart’s operas should be edited, altered, or presented with content/trigger warnings. I have my own reservations about trigger warnings, but I’m pretty certain that use of blackface in Die Zauberflöte is no longer acceptable.
I understand the argument that there is no “active” repression that comes from a musical performance. I guess it’s true. Nobody gets shot, nobody is incarcerated for an inordinate period of time, nobody is prohibited from freedom of speech or action (including the choice either to attend or ignore the performance), etc. Similarly, even if a musical performance constituted an act of aggression, does it necessarily mean that it will incite others to violence or oppression?
The problem lies in the fact that the stakes of classical music are indeed relatively low. When’s the last time classical music was party to a major headline story involving the politics of racial injustice in America? The likelihood that witnessing a blackface performance in a Mozart opera will directly incite oppression against a person of color is really far fetched, I’ll admit. I’ve heard the arguments that “it’s just historical context” or “it’s not the essential to the opera.” But whence the bearings of that historical context today? And if this is not an essential element to the opera, either in the present or the past, then surely it can be done away with because of its distasteful and even hurtful nature.
Because of the exponentially diminutive position of classical music in American society, I will be the first to admit that considerations such as these may sound hyperbolic at best, whiny at worst. But just because classical music is “not as important,” are we therefore exempt from the rules? In other genres, I don’t see anyone literature professors skimming over Faulkner’s racism, and I don’t see filmmakers scouting for producers to remake Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation. Conversely, how many ingenious productions of Shakespeare have there been which have addressed issues of racism (Merchant of Venice, Otello), depression and mental illness (Hamlet), gender and violence (Romeo and Juliet) by taking that which is problematic and exploiting it for the purposes of making a positive statement. While the operatic world has slowly caught on, thanks to figures like Peter Sellars, there is a widespread notion in the classical music world (particularly amongst instrumentalists) that we as musicians are exempt from such standards because we are on the outskirts of mainstream society.
But are we really so guiltless, exempt, disconnected? Musicians: how many African American and Latino classical musicians do you know? How many Asian-Pacific Islander classical musicians do you know? How many Native American classical musicians do you know? How many white classical musicians do you know? How many classical musicians with wealthy parents do you know? How many classical musicians do you know with wealthy parents who support them well past their passage into adulthood? How many female concert pianists and violinists do you know? The pie chart/venn diagrams in your head look pretty skewed, don’t they? It’s no secret that classical music in the United States has been and is the property of the white and wealthy (and often, male!). Indeed, if the classical music world really reflected American society and visa versa, the rates of diversity and opportunity would look far better. Yet, if we look at the various skirmishes about the ethical implications of great classical works in the last twenty years, the battles have been pitched between caucasians over issues of antisemitism in Wagner’s operas and various musical settings of the St. John Passion. Even with the 2014 production of John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer at the Met, the issue raised again and again was the issue of the portrayal of white bodies on stage, yet little discussion of the orientalization and potential exoticization of the Palestinian characters. Similarly, the Met continues to use of Zefferelli productions of Madame Butterfly and Turandot. I suppose its understandable: there’s significantly more investment in the issue of antisemitism in American society, particularly in NYC. But in a city so diverse and multi-cultural, isn’t it time to expand the discussion?
But consider the case of Oberlin, which prides itself in being on the vanguard of minority inclusion and empowerment as the original abolitionist college in American. This year, a campus incident of antisemitism made headline news across the country, and constituted a major portion of Heller’s New Yorker piece, when a professor expressed pretty detestable comments oustside of the classroom. But another incident last year in which a visiting professor in the historical performance department used the word “n*****r” repeatedly in a rehearsal at the Conservatory? Frankly, brushed under the carpet (in my humble opinion) with a quiet dismissal, with media coverage extending only so far as a single report in the Oberlin Review. I agree with the institutional decision for his dismissal. His comments were truly disgraceful and harmful, regardless of whether or not he was on the campus of a “touchy” liberal arts environment. “He’s from a different era.” “He’s from another country.” “The context from which his comments are coming from is so different from ours.” “He wasn’t calling a particular student that slur; he was using the term to be illustrative.” These are all arguments I heard about the incident from other students and even from a few faculty members (I will probably lose a few friends in publishing this). It’s a funny coincidence that these are all the same arguments that get made about music of the past, isn’t it?
Classical musicians cannot claim sole victimhood in the problem of inequality in their field, though the situation of pre-collegiate arts education in the United States stacks certain cards against us. More questions for my fellow musicians: How many jokes about Asian musicians have we heard from our professors, time and time again? I was in a coaching with a voice professor who asked an Asian-American student “if she spoke English.” How many times have we heard views that express the need for certain levels of Western haute-acculturation (to be bought with money, obviously) are needed to be a world class classical musician? How many courses in non-Western music were required in our conservatory syllabus? How many courses in popular, non-classical music were required in our conservatory courses? What of foreign languages (for us non-singers)? Any course remotely pertaining to the economics or intricacies of the classical music world? Nada. The elitism in the classical music world not only translates into systemic racial imbalance, but is one in the same. We are not so separate from the society of the United States to claim that we are not party to the processes of systemic racism and eurocentrism in our field.
In reading, Belfer’s book, I felt that the question of “what if” falls short of the real issue, but points to a larger question: “where to begin?!?” rather than “what if?” In the field of historical performance, the question is perhaps more pressing than it is in other areas of classical music, as bygone views of the past are more problematic the further back in history we go. As there are a few pretty problematic works which are still performed a great deal. I must admit a certain sense of dismay at the fact that portions of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes (“The Noble Indians”) has received numerous performances at Juilliard in the last couple of years, including one led by Jordi Savall, a UNESCO Artist for Peace. While the musical content on its own is beautiful, the music is intentionally illustrative of supposedly bygone images of Native Americans and indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, the images originally evoked by this music are not in the past. Native Americans are referred to as Les Sauvages (“savages”). As social and economic deprivation continually plagues indigenous persons of North America, and yet cultural institutions charge admission for period, “historically accurate” performances of Rameau’s magnum opus. But whose history is being put forward? And at whose expense? Whose silence?
There is no easy solution to the issue. There are plenty of Jewish musicians who regularly research and perform the St. John Passion and Wagner, and there are African American opera singers who sing Mozart readily, and to great acclaim. That said, with these works, processes have been undergone to ascertain the stakes and contexts of such performances. While Barenboim’s performance of Wagner in the State of Israel in 2001 supposedly marked a new era, it was an exceptional occasion. Whether we like it or not, there are musicians who have strong ethical attitudes towards the performance of certain works and composers because of context. If Itzhak Perlman is to be applauded for refusing to perform in North Carolina because of the state’s defiant stance against transgender rights, why should not musicians be emboldened to take the same stance with their own art? Do we as musicians think so little of ourselves to think that it cannot and will not matter?
I don’t profess to holding the answers. There is no solution that will be reached overnight. What I will say is that Belfer’s work is worth a read, as it’s one of the first pieces of fiction I have read which has challenged me as a classical musician to consider the stakes of my art, as abstract and irrelevant as it may feel within the protected walls of Lincoln Center. If you’re a musician, have a read, and think about what you play. If you’re a listener, have a read, and think about what you pay for. Belfer’s novel is a fantastic reminder that classical music stands not in isolation cultural product, but increasingly as a social commodity.