What inspires you to compose/perform music that has political overtones?



Leonard Lehrman
Photo by Helene Williams

Making the Political Personal

What does one ever hope to achieve by composing/performing any music? To change the world, transform it, or at least leave it a bit better than one found it, perhaps. In a certain sense, all artistic expression has political overtones.

When told she would be allowed to return to the U.S., which had deported her in 1919, only if she would “agree not to discuss political questions” in her lectures on drama, Emma Goldman cabled Roger Baldwin (Jan. 3, 1934): “How can I treat literary or dramatic themes without reference to the forces that gave them their strongest impetus: politics!?”

If one ignores the politics inherent in any work, that itself is a political stance: one favoring the status quo. The net result is silence in the face of injustice, which can never be acceptable to anyone of conscience. Making others sensitive to the needs of the historical moment, rendering the political personal, and human, would seem to me to be an essential role of a socially conscious artist.

Other composers’ music that has inspired me has often been political, dating especially from the 1930s and 1960s: my first composition teacher and mentor Elie Siegmeister‘s “Strange Funeral in Braddock” (text: Michael Gold), The Plough and the Stars (after Sean O’Casey), I Have a Dream (after Martin Luther King), and The Face of War (text: Langston Hughes); the Brecht settings of Kurt Weill and especially Hanns Eisler (several of which I translated into English for Gisela May); a number of works by Leonard Bernstein, many of which were inspired by those of Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964), 17 of whose works I have adapted/completed/reconstructed since 1969 (including 5 operas and 12 songs).

In Blitzstein, who had written operas that were musicals and musicals that were operas, always with an undertone if not an overtone of social criticism and class consciousness, I found my own voice, and the opportunity to do something both Siegmeister and Bernstein thought should be done but couldn’t do themselves: to pick up where Blitzstein left off, to complete the work of the voice that had been stilled when he was robbed and killed before reaching his full potential as a composer.

Blitzstein’s political satire also inspired the words and music of Tom Lehrer (whose “Clementine” and “Hanukka in Santa Monica” inspired my “Clementine Kaddish” and “Goot Yuntif”), who in turn inspired the Viennese cabarettists Gerhard Bronner and Peter Wehle, a number of whose songs I have translated (along with a few by Jacques Brel, e.g. “Les Bourgeois” and Georges Brassens, e.g. “Je Suis Un Voyou”). Bronner, in return, translated my and Joshua Vogel’s “Ev’ry Boy Should Have A Jewish Mother” (citing Einstein, Kissinger, Freud, and Leonard Bernstein), which has been performed on three continents.

A dramatic musical work based on the letters of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is a historical document, but also makes a political statement. So political in fact that John Corigliano told me he searched in vain for years for a commission to write such a piece, as I have written in my 1988 cantata, We Are Innocent (recorded on Opus One with the Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra and performed a dozen times in three states), for which he has repeatedly expressed admiration. It is also a clear instance, all too rare, of a political musical work that has changed people’s minds. Many who had thought perhaps the Rosenbergs deserved what they got had at least second thoughts when hearing the emotions (as expressed by my music) behind the words they actually wrote, insisting to the end that they were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted and executed in 1953.

On the strength of that work, my E.G.: A Musical Portrait of Emma Goldman (50 productions in five countries, 1986-94), and my Requiem for Hiroshima (text: Lee Baxandall; premiered at Riverside Church, 1990), the Puffin Foundation commissioned me to write New World: An Opera About What Columbus Did to the “Indians,which had three productions in 1991-93; Suppose A Wedding (an opera on Bernard Malamud‘s only play, pitting an artist against a businessman, premiered at Hebrew Union College, 1997); and the completion of Marc Blitzstein’s magnum opus, Sacco and Vanzetti—premiered semi-staged with piano at The White Barn Theatre in Westport, CT, August 17-19, 2001. We are hoping for a fully staged production with orchestra in conjunction with Blitzstein’s Centennial in 2005.

My very first stage work, The Comic Tragedy of San Po Jo, was written in junior high school, inspired by an idea of classmate Russ Feldman (and by a Ban-the-Bomb demonstration my mother took me to at the U.N.) with book and lyrics in collaboration with another classmate, Mark Kingdon, in 1962, and performed in 1963. It was a satire on atomic testing, JFK, HUAC, and U.S. indifference to the well-being of other peoples. Also in 1962, my “Bar Mitzvah Cantata” (revived 27 years later as a “Prayer for Peace”) took on questions of war, peace and race.

From about 1963 to 1968, I did not write any overtly political compositions. I was kind of “between two stools,” as my teacher at Harvard, Earl Kim, used to say. I liked show music and classical music, and wanted to work with both of them, if possible. The Bourgeois Poet, my song cycle on Karl Shapiro poems, was a kind of soul searching, with some political overtones, combining both lyricism and dodecaphony, pondering: “What’s in my file at the F.B.I.? …Have I ever been cleared, and if so of what?”

The April 4, 1968, death of Dr. King, whom I had heard speak several times, in New York and Washington, inspired the slow movement of my string trio, “April Ninth,” the date of his funeral. A year later, to the day, the Harvard anti-war student strike erupted, inspiring my production of Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, Boston’s first since Leonard Bernstein’s of 30 years earlier. (Bernstein heard about it, and on Dec. 5, 1970, attended my tribute to Blitzstein, which included the Boston premiere of the latter’s I’ve Got the Tune, perhaps the greatest musical parable ever written on the role of the composer in society.)

Politics also inspired “My University,” my setting of a Vladimir Mayakovsky poem in Russian and my own singing translation in English. Gregory Sandow (then a student at the Longy School of Music) premiered it with me at Boston University May 3, 1970. Twenty-three years later it received its NY premiere at Lehman College‘s Mayakovsky Centennial, at which event I presented poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko with a copy of my first singing translation—of his “Do the Russians Want War?” to music by Alexander Nicolayevich Kholminov—published in my high school newspaper some 27 years earlier.

My college and grad-student years (the latter at Cornell) coincided with a wide range of social and political activism, including calls not only for recognizing and affirming the dignity of people of all racial and ethnic origins but also for moderating the extreme disparities of wealth in this country, for an end to the US war in Vietnam, and for an increase in meaningful life choices for women (including contraceptives, which were illegal in Massachusetts longer than in some other states). Various of these threads—and the draft—no doubt factored, in ways one would be hard put to disentangle and label today, into my fascination at the time with a) The Living Theater, which came to Cambridge and took my breath away, with its almost anarchic working methods, a clear challenge to any kind of “cultural establishment” (their “Paradise Now” at MIT and interview with me on Harvard’s WHRB inspired my orchestral tone poem, “The Bird of Paradise”) and b) the works of Bertolt Brecht: I staged the U.S. premieres of two of his plays in my own translations, which I’m told did better justice to the Eisler songs in them, especially, than any that had been previously done. These two plays were The Days of the Commune and The Roundheads and the Pointedheads (the latter, written in 1934-36 was performed in my version at Cornell in 1973, at Aspen directed by Martha Schlamme in 1981, and in concert in Manhattan in 1998).

Anniversaries and singing translations have been frequent venues for political expression. In 1971, performances of my aforementioned translation of the Brecht-Eisler Days of the Commune commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Paris Commune at Harvard, Yale, and on WGBH radio. The Massachusetts Review published it. And this month (November), Jewish Currents will publish my faithful but secular singing translation of the Yaa’cov Rotblit-Yair Rozenbloom “Song of Peace,” which Yitzhak Rabin sang just before he was shot Nov. 4, 1995, and which has been available until now only in a religiosified version published by Transcontinental. Reclaiming a secular classic is also, I daresay, a political statement. The Oceanside Chorale will premiere it Dec. 6, 2003, along with my “We Wish You Peace” and my new arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s “Sean Song” on a text by Yoko Ono and Sean Ono Lennon.

Charles Bernstein‘s very political 1970 Harvard production of Marat/Sade, to which I contributed musical direction and some additional incidental music (approved by Richard Peaslee, a composer whose work I much admire), inspired my duet setting of one of his poems, which Helene Williams and Paul Sperry will premiere at a Composers Concordance concert May 27, 2004.

Other living writers whose politics I’ve shared, and whose words I’ve set, include: feminist poet/photographer Polly Joan (“Little Alice from Amherst, Ohio“), Orel Odinov Protopopescu (our anti-war feminist Chanukah opera, Hannah, premiered at a U.S. military theater in Heidelberg, Germany in May 1980 and broadcast over WBAI as George Bush the Elder invaded Panama Dec. 5, 1989); poet/artist Barbara Tumarkin Dunham (the musical Growing Up Woman, premiered in Glassboro NJ, 1981; Berlin, 1984); Karen Ruoff Kramer of Stanford/Berlin (E.G.: A Musical Portrait of Emma Goldman, inspired by Howard Zinn‘s play, Emma); (these women collaborators also inspired my adaptation of Manya Pruzhanskaya Lackow’s “The Eternal Struggle” as my own play, Adam and Lilith and Eve, as well as settings of first-person accounts of Biblical women in my “Sisters” cycle: “Lot’s Wife,” “Miriam,” and “Zelophehad’s Daughters,” the latter being the story of the first successful struggle for women’s rights); Joel Shatzky (“Kalinin Bridge,” on the 1991 Russian coup, premiered at a Composers Concordance concert Feb. 1992 along with three other “Political Songs”; Superspy!: The S-e-c-r-e-t Musical, premiered by Center for Contemporary Opera, Nov. 1990, including “The Glorious War Song,” revived at a Not In Our Name anti-war concert in Manhattan Feb. 15, 2003; and the aforementioned New World: An Opera About What Columbus Did to the “Indians”); Düsseldorf poet Peter Maiwald (“Spiele,” a parable of capitalism and socialism); German-Swiss director/writer Günter Heinz Loscher (“Kommt, wir aendern die Welt!” translated into Brooklynese: “Let’s Change the Woild!“); Berlin tenor/poet Harry Oschitzki (a Mauthausen memorial and “A Brown Wolf (Arturo Ui)” – performed most recently at Temple Judea in Manhasset NY and reviewed in the latest New Music Connoisseur); a dozen German/Austrian survivors/writers, including Henryk M. Broder, Georg Kreisler, Arthur Brauner and Thomas Rothschild (the cantata “Jewish Voices in Germany” – also reviewed in the most recent NMC); a dozen Australian poets, including Alex Skovron, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Jacob Rosenberg, Edith Speers, Peter Goldsworthy, Ian McBryde, Jordie Albiston, Alison Croggon, Ania Walwicz, and John Tranter (the cycle “An Australian Odyssey,” premiered in Roslyn NY, Melbourne and Sydney, 2001-2); breast cancer anti-bra pioneer Sydney Ross Singer (The Booby Trap, or Off Our Chests, premiered by Golden Fleece, reviewed by NMC); Naturist poets Lois Ann Horowitz, Stephen Van Eck, Gene Peacock, Jr. and Melissa Pinol (“Naked Verses,” performed at various clothing-optional events by the Opera/Musical Theatre Special Interest Group of The Naturist Society, founded in 1989); Rosalie Calabrese, Grace Herman and Suffolk County poet laureate George Wallace (Helene Williams will premiere my settings of their poems at Great Neck House Mar. 14, 2004); Pete Seeger (“The Stairway”); and the late William Kunstler (on the late Corliss Lamont), Brooklyn poet laureate Norman Rosten (four songs), and Edith Segal (“Crimes” and Love Song Cycle – the latter recorded on Helene Williams sings Songs of Love by Capstone Records).

Writers of the past whose works have inspired me politically include John Reed (“A Letter to Louise [Bryant]”); William Blake (“America: A Prophecy“); Percy Bysshe Shelley (“On Political Greatness” and three others); Ivan Krylov, the Russian Aesop (his satirical “Quartet”); Bertolt Brecht (“Deutschland“); David Aizman (my opera Sima, after his novella “The Krasovitsky Couple,” on anti-Semitism and assimilation); Mikhail Sholokhov (anti-war one-man opera, The Family Man, premiered by Ronald Edwards, in Berlin by George Shirley); Velemir Khlebnikov (“Me and Russia“); Heinrich Heine (“Ein Wanderer durch DEUTSCHLAND”); Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (feminist Love Song Cycle); Chief Seathl (aka Seattle); James Baldwin (“Faith“); Langston Hughes (“A Dream Deferred“); William Butler Yeats (“A Coat“); and Abel Meeropol (the man who adopted the Rosenbergs’ sons): “Conscience” (Winner of the 2002 Brookhaven Arts Council Sunrise/Sunset Composition Competition), “The Purple Couch,” “If All of the Papers,” and the opera The Wooing, based on Chekhov‘s The Boor (my second Chekhov opera, the first being The Birthday of the Bank, commissioned by the Lake George Opera Festival in 1988 and premiered at Queens College eleven years later – as was The Wooing, last February) – all recorded on “The Abel Meeropol Centennial Concert,” Original Cast Records CD 6055.

What political work would I like to write in the future? An opera about Alger Hiss. Charles Kondek has expressed interest in working on the libretto. Now if we can only find a commission.