Since the cataclysmic election earlier this month, I have struggled, at times, to find comfort or inspiration in music. With increasing apprehension, I wonder how music can make a difference going forward. We are on the brink of catastrophe. What can artists do with music in this moment, and how do we discern its limits?
This question is exceptionally relevant right now, but artists have been asking it, in one way or another, for a long time. The answers cluster around two possibilities. One option is to drill deeper into music itself, plunging into its depths in search of answers. The other insists on a temporary leave of absence – stepping away from music in order to attend to more immediate, material concerns.
The “drill deeper” approach unnerves me. In the aftermath of the election, I watched many friends post well-known words by Leonard Bernstein on social media: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Often presented without any context, the statement originated in an earlier moment of national crisis. It is from a speech Bernstein gave on November 25, 1963, to an audience mourning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Explaining his decision to honor Kennedy by conducting the New York Philharmonic in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony (rather than the more expected choice of a requiem), Bernstein cited Mahler’s “visionary concept of hope” and the need for “strength to go on striving for those goals [Kennedy] cherished.” Through steadfast rededication to the act of making music, Bernstein implied, the Philharmonic could impart that strength and inspire its listeners.
Even in context, this sentiment seems conveniently unimaginative, a rationale for limiting the scope of one’s action. A generous interpretation of Bernstein’s words suggests that musicians can transform art’s political impact by doing what they’re already doing – only better. But I’m skeptical of the idea that a more perfect art can really bring into being a more perfect union. Bernstein makes vague allusions to Kennedy’s presumably political “goals,” but the only goals he names are musical ones: intensity, beauty, and devotion. Are these really the ultimate aims of musical performance in a time of violent crisis?
(The musicologist Nadine Hubbs writes about another, more extreme example of this worldview, disturbing in its glibness. Writing from Paris in 1940, as war engulfed Europe, the American critic and composer Virgil Thomson declared that he had identified “the central esthetic problem in music today…the creation of an acceptable style-convention for performing Mozart.”)
I saw the second, “leave of absence” point of view represented on post-election social media, too. A friend posted “First Fight. Then Fiddle,” a sonnet written in 1949 by the poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks declares that music must wait:
First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string
With feathery sorcery; muzzle the note
With hurting love; the music that they wrote
Bewitch, bewilder. Qualify to sing
Threadwise. Devise no salt, no hempen thing
For the dear instrument to bear. Devote
The bow to silks and honey. Be remote
A while from malice and from murdering,
But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.
Brooks’s plan of action is the opposite of Bernstein’s. She issues commands – to fight, to carry hate, to win war, and then to rise – which suggest that the struggle for political change will be violent and all-consuming. She describes music as literally supernatural (“sorcery” that can “bewitch”), irreconcilable with the world as it currently exists. After we deal with more pressing concerns, we can bring music back to earth and rightfully revel in it.
Something about this approach seems instinctively logical, especially as the full scope of what happened on November 8 sinks in. But it is also plainly wrong, because we will never reach a moment when there is no more political work left to do. Even Brooks doesn’t appear entirely convinced by her own logic. She conveys her message, after all, through a perfectly constructed sonnet full of phrases describing the exquisite beauty of a violin. Her poem is a paradox: art sending the message that it is not yet time for art.
I thought about Bernstein and Brooks the weekend after the election, when I traveled to Washington, D.C. to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Since opening in September, the museum has proven wildly popular, attracting up to 30 thousand visitors a day. Each day people line up around the block seeking free entry passes, and on the chilly Saturday when I visited, those first in line had arrived at 3:30 in the morning. The museum’s layout resonates with Brooks’s poem in that it begins with politics and culminates with art. The lower floors are devoted to “history galleries,” which tell a chronological story beginning with the transatlantic slave trade and – as a result of centuries of hard-fought, incremental progress – ending with the election of Barack Obama and the rise of Black Lives Matter. Above are the “culture galleries,” which celebrate African American art, music, sports, photography, and more.
I joined the crush of visitors and headed immediately for the top floor, which features an enormous exhibit called “Musical Crossroads.” Anchored by Chuck Berry’s fire-engine-red Cadillac, the exhibit swirls with artifacts and objects – instruments, outfits, records, posters, scores – and the sounds of looping videos merge with museum visitors’ conversations. On one prominent display, hundreds of musicians’ names are printed in black capital letters against a stark white background, surrounding a quotation from Paul Robeson: “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.”
As I made my way through the museum, I saw Robeson’s words affirmed. Music and musicians kept showing up, at every step of the way. Here was Marian Anderson in an exhibit about civil rights, singing on the National Mall in 1939. Here was Robeson himself, featured in exhibits on sports and on protest. Other artifacts confirmed his idea from a different angle, by exposing the fear that music can inspire in those who hold power. Here was a flyer distributed by a white supremacist group in the 1950s: “Don’t Buy Negro Records.” Here were drums from South Carolina, their use outlawed by fearful slaveholders because slaves played them to communicate. Over and over, I was reminded that music – and especially African American music, which is the lifeblood of American music – is inescapably intertwined with politics.
Maybe, I realized, Bernstein and Brooks weren’t as opposed as I had thought. They both understood that this connection between music and politics is real and necessary, and the most notable distinction between them is that they point the arrow linking art and politics in opposite directions. Bernstein wanted to use music to inspire political action, while Brooks imagined politics that create a space for art. Either way, making art remains the essential part of the equation. Perhaps that’s why neither perspective, alone, satisfied.
After leaving the museum, I walked through the Mall and ended up near the National Archives. There was a busker playing the trumpet outside. An inscription on that imposing building loomed above him: This building holds in trust the records of our national life and symbolizes our faith in the permanency of our national institutions. At a moment when those institutions are exceedingly fragile, his music seemed all the more necessary.
Lucy Caplan is the recipient of the 2016 Rubin Prize for Music Criticism. A magna cum laude graduate of Harvard College, she is currently a doctoral candidate in American Studies and African American Studies at Yale, where she is writing a dissertation on opera and African American culture in the early 20th century. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.