November 20, 2011

Those who should have known better...

As pictorial as a tone poem, this documents one of the most horrifying moments in world history.  ...  Terror.  Screams.
Michael Steinberg on Krzysztof Penderecki's composition Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (For the Love of Music, Oxford U. Press, 2006, p.174)

Here is the well-known story about this composition's title:  Penderecki's original title was "8:37".  However, this being Communist Poland of 1960, Penderecki was advised by some music bureaucrat (either from the Polish Radio or from the state owned music publishing house) to change the title so as to put an ideologically more advantageous face on this extremely dissonant modernist composition.  Which he did.  The rest, as they say, is history.

By the time Steinberg's book came out, this story had long been common knowledge.   Here is one example of how this story was mentioned in a routine concert review published by the New York Times within a year after Steinberg's book:

If you listen to Krzysztof Penderecki’s 1959 “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” for example, you may think that its solid blocks of searing, high-pitched string sound are meant to evoke the agonies of those victims, but it turns out that when Mr. Penderecki wrote the score, he was thinking solely about sound, and he originally called the work “8’37.”  The more famous name was an afterthought, inspired by cold-war propaganda and the threat of American nuclear power. Mr. Penderecki, 26 and making his way in Poland, thought it would bring the work some attention.
[ Allan Kozinn, "Tanglewood Festival: Can music talk Politics?", New York Times, August 1, 2007 (italics mine) ]

There is no way Steinberg, with his impressive music credentials, did not know about the origins of the composition's title.  Which means that he simply could not resist the satisfaction of repeating a conveniently anti-American myth.[1]   In addition to being dishonest, the much credentialed Steinberg also had shown himself to be a rather dimwitted writer on music.  Even if Penderecki himself had been in Hiroshima at the time of its bombing, and had miraculously survived the explosion, it still would be sheer stupidity to speak of Penderecki's tone clusters and glissandos as being about (let alone as "documenting") the event.  If music could have extra-musical semantic content, there would be no need for all those obnoxious titles, nauseating dedications, smarmy program notes, and pseudo-musicological factoids in books, journal articles, and newspaper reviews - all anxious to remind us again and again that a given piece of music is really "about" such-and-such extra-musical thing, event, or concept.

Finally, let us not forget about the incompetent (or dishonest) assholes at the august Oxford University Press who sent Steinberg's book to the printing plant without having challenged his pseudo-musicological fabrications.  And while we are at it, lets also note the ignorant (or dishonest) pianists Andre Watts and Richard Goode whose laudatory blurbs adorn the book's dust jacket.

[1] Steinberg is not worth digging deeper, but I suspect that, along with many American leftist "intellectuals",  his heart never bled for those hundreds of thousands of American boys killed by the Japanese in the Pacific.  After all, when you pluck an 18-year old boy from a farm in Nebraska, give him all of 30 days of basic  training, put an M1 rifle in his trembling hands, and ship him to the front line - well, the boy ain't  a civilian no more, right?  He is now a professional soldier whose death (even when multiplied by hundreds of thousands) should never budge the arrow of a firmly anti-American moral compass...

1 comment:

laybl said...

If you're going to mention Japanese atrocities, don't omit the 20-30 million Chinese slaughtered by same, mostly civilians, a number dwarfing the body count in Hiroshima AND Nagasaki!Japan has never acknowledged its vicious acts.