This is the flip side, more or less, to my last post, about how safe it is for an authoritarian government like China’s to encourage classical music. The repertoire from the past — all those great masterpieces — seems very safe today. There’s not much in it that could challenge anything the Chinese government wants its people to believe. And classical music has worldwide prestige, so China seems greatly cultured by encouraging it.
But today there’s a stunning piece in the New York Times, by their classical music reporter, Dan Wakin, that shows how exactly these traits of classical music can have the opposite effect. Dan writes about classical music in Palestine, about what he calls “a rising tide of interest in Western classical music” among young Palestinians.
And why is this happening? Well, for a start, it’s an escape from the ugly realities of Palestinian life. Which dovetails precisely with something I’ve noticed many times in my own far more peaceful (what an understatement!) country. People often say they like classical music because it’s calm, or because it provides a refuge from the jangles of contemporary life. To me, that sounds very much like escapism, or nostalgia, and — if this is really what classical music means in our culture — calls into question classical music’s standing as serious art. Art ought to do far more than comfort people.
But in Palestine, who could blame anyone for needing an escape? By spending your time playing the flute, as one teenager described in Dan’s piece does, you’re affirming your humanity. You don’t turn your back on the harsh realities of your life. The flute player Dan writes about said, as Dan writes, “that she felt ‘in prison’ because of travel restrictions. ‘Every time we look at this wall, we feel suffocated,’ she added.” But she makes space for something else.
And she and others can do this precisely because classical music doesn’t have any embattled content. Because it stands apart from everyday life, you make a large statement, as a Palestinian, by spending time with it. You’re saying that you’re more than the horrors you’re part of. And so are your people. You’re saying that you stand for something higher and better, something that could eventually be a larger part of your life.
Which then ties into the worldwide prestige of classical music. As a Palestinian, playing Bach and Mozart, you’ve tied into something more or less universally viewed as lofty, high-minded, ethical, inspiring. And other people in the world can see you doing that. No surprise, then (quoting Dan again), that
many Palestinians see the study of Western classical music — part of a
broader cultural revival in the West Bank — as a source of hope, a way
to connect to the outer world from a hemmed-in and controlled
existence, particularly at a time when hope for a Palestinian state
seems ever more distant.
Classical music thus takes on a political meaning, precisely — what a paradox — because otherwise it wouldn’t have any. You rise above any stereotypes others might have of you (or at least in principle you could) , and take your place in a worldwide enterprise in which those stereotypes no longer make any sense.
That’s the idealistic view, of course. As Dan makes clear, some Palestinians think that playing classical music means selling out to Israel. And there are other cultural problems, too. One music school was set on fire by Palestinians who disapproved of it. Nor does Israel, on the whole, support classical music in Palestine, or even know about it. “We cannot perceive them as people who have their own cultural lives,” an Israeli music critic says. (Daniel Barenboim, with his work to bring young Israelis and Palestinians together through music, is of course an exception.)
But the paradox is clear. Classical music develops an overt political meaning in Palestine precisely because it doesn’t have one elsewhere. Or, to go a little deeper, its implicit political meaning elsewhere in the world, which is quite conservative, in Palestine starts to seem radical, because Palestinians have been excluded from the cultural life, conservative as it might be, that classical music represents.
(On musical life in China, see a comment posted to my previous post, about someone’s experience playing metal in China. The government watched every concert, censored every lyric.)