Music and Partisanship


The Bolshevik concept of “partiinost'” has been giving some major headaches to many generations of translators. Most commonly, it seems, it is rendered as “partisanship” or “party-mindedness” (which is a bit awkward). Another option could be, in view of the current philosophical fashions, “party-orientedness” which would give us a nice “party-oriented philosophy” and so on. The idea, however perverted it became in the Soviet Union (a entirely different topic), was not in itself as odd as it sounds: all philosophical (or, for that matter, ideological positions) positions are biased, they serves the interests of the class that they either represent or aim to serve (lacking class consciousness). These aren’t, of course, “official” definitions by any means, but they are close enough.

So it seems to me that among all the arts that attempt to ingratiate themselves with the ruling classes, i.e. the classes to which the artists themselves (typically) do not belong, music is the worst example. Classical music today is basically an affair that takes place outside of the popular reach due to its reputation for being music for the rich (or those who want to appear rich – i.e. old people taking naps at the symphony). Those decrying such a state should probably look back and realize that such music was always music for the ruling classes, even in its most rebellious and nontraditional forms. Take two extreme examples (extreme in terms of one being on the side of the “people’s music” and the other being on the side of “king’s personal accompaniment”): early Venetian opera and Handel’s Water Music. 

Venetian opera or rather the introduction of opera as part of Venetian carnival celebrations basically created opera as a public genre – liberated from the privacy of the courtly music (performances for select invited guests only), it became a true popular (“people’s”) art form in 1630s-40s. Theaters were open and the public access through tickets was provided – so opera became what it was not through some ingenuous invention (singing out stories) by a select few (the usual story of Camerata misunderstanding of the nature of Greek tragedy), but through popular interest in the new form of art. Ellen Rosand’s Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice paints a rather good picture of Venetian commercial opera. Clearly the opera in Venice was done for the sake of income, not some noble goal of brining culture to the masses. Indeed, only a few operas from that time, and really good ones, survive – one might reasonably assume that a lot of them were not very good. But the idea of making money from public performances of music (unlike private performances for guests or church music) was still a form of bringing culture to the people (in exchange for a fee).

Handel’s Water Music is famous (justifiably so) for its innovative sound and so on, but it was written for a specific royal occasion and aimed at certain glorification of the said king (with people in the audience admiring both the music and the royal procession). Clearly in this case the music was used for specific class purposes (similar to those of the church use), i.e. the composer aligned himself with the ruling class in exchange for commissions and  fees. Those who write about Handel’s use of instruments, for example, point out that his use of horns and trumpets to make sure the music was heard on the shores by the crowds as well. Hogwood (Handel: Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks) cites the London paper that reported the kind liked the music so much he made the exhausted musicians play it three times – clear example of royal exploitation…

Is there anything in the music itself, however, that makes it either, let’s use the traditional terms, bourgeois or proletarian? That this is not in itself a silly question can be easily demonstrated by another historical example: the fate of polyphony and the early opposition of the church. Catholic church argued that polyphony is evil – notes clash and create dissonant feelings, distract the worshippers and so on and on (see 1324 papal bull called Docta Sanctorum Patrum): 

But certain practitioners of the new school, who think only of the laws of measured time, are composing new melodies of their own creation, with a new system of note values, that they prefer to the ancient, traditional music. The melodies of the Church are [now] sung in semibreves and minims and with grace notes of repercussion. Some [composers] break up their melodies with hockets or rob them of their virility with discant, three voice music, and motets, with a dangerous element produced by certain parts sung on text in the vernacular; all these abuses have brought into disrepute the basic melodies of the Antiphonal and Gradual [the principal chant books]. These composers, knowing nothing of the true foundation upon which they must build, are ignorant of the church modes, incapable of distinguishing between them, and cause great confusion. The great number of notes in their compositions conceals from us the plainchant melody, with its simple well-regulated rises and falls that indicate the character of the church mode. These musicians run without pausing. They intoxicate the ear without satisfying it; they dramatize the text with gestures; and, instead of promoting devotion, they prevent it by creating a sensuous and indecent atmosphere

So it is not necessarily odd to ask about what kind of music should be considered as the kind of music that represents one’s class interests. Obviously commercialization of almost all contemporary music (especially non-classical) indicates that it is motivated by money and therefore whatever produces the most amount of money will be the kind of music that people wil pursue (both in creation and consumption). But this is getting a bit too long so I better wrap it up…

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