On Performing Public Art

To open our 60th Anniversary season we are performing a concert of two pieces that might both be described as “public art”. One of them is a deliberate response to an event which profoundly moved an entire country; the other is a moving piece that has been appropriated for public occasions. This juxtaposition is a good time to reflect on the difficulty faced by artists who take up the challenge, and the burden, of producing art for occasions that have public significance.

The now-beloved music we know as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was not written for any particular occasion, nor was the “Ode to Joy” commissioned with any political subtext in mind. It was not that Beethoven was above politics, or that he considered himself too good to write music for public occasions – quite the contrary. In fact, the celebrated Beethoven was called upon to write quite a bit of occasional music in Vienna, the capital of an empire; however, much of his output of this sort is now (justly?) obscure. This includes at least one major choral/orchestral work, The Glorious Moment. That piece was written for the Congress of Vienna in 1814, the international conference that redrew Europe’s boundaries after the defeat of Napoleon. It was a period of triumph and relief for the countries that had expelled the French invaders, and the texts of this piece are full of both musical and textual triumphalism, and the lyrics contain now-obscure references to events of the day – a combination that diminishes its lasting value, as is the fate of much music written for specific public events.1

Here we can think of another work the Chorus performed recently, the Brahms Triumphlied, written to commemorate the German victory over the French in 1871. That piece is full of pounding music and lyrics that exult in the way that God let the righteous German Kaiser crush the degenerate French ruler – sentiments that resonate with 21st century audiences in a much different way than Brahms intended. Contrast this with the exquisite beauty and emotional power of the Brahms Requiem which we will perform later this season: that is a piece inspired by personal tragedy, one that is filled with a powerful humanity that makes this piece deeply and emotionally satisfying for both performers and listeners. With Brahms, as with Beethoven, the power of their privately-inspired art has proven to be much more lasting than that of much of their public art.

Or, to take another recent example, think of Johann Strauss’s The Beautiful Blue Danube, performed by the men of the Chorus at the end of last season. There is a good reason that we know this music best in its orchestral form. This music was commissioned for the Vienna World Exhibition of 1873, and the words written for the occasion today strike us as ridiculous in their celebration of the mythic happy unity of the now long-vanished Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today these “occasional” words detract from listeners’ enjoyment, which is why Maestro Graf told audiences last year to try not to pay any attention to them. The tune is catchy, but the occasion is long past.

Of course, music written for private reasons can be appropriated as public art, and that has been the fate of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in many periods. Perhaps most memorably, the Symphony was performed in Berlin at a public outdoor concert in 1989, after the opening of the Berlin wall. In this performance, the conductor (Leonard Bernstein) had the chorus substitute the word “Freiheit” (freedom) for the word “Freude” (joy). This was a musically inaccurate but symbolically powerful gesture that used Beethoven’s music to express the sentiments of a city and of a nation in the face of rapidly moving, but in this instance welcome, events.

Which brings us to John Adams, and to the quest to use art to help a city and a nation come to terms with unexpected events, events that seemed like a tragedy for the nation, not just for affected friends and relatives. But before turning to our Adams piece, it seems worth remembering what a difficult assignment this is for artists of all kinds. It was more than 5 years after the end of the Viet Nam war that the nation commissioned an appropriate memorial for this chapter in the country’s history, and then the radically understated design was submitted by an unknown 21-year old artist in an open contest. Similarly, plans for the memorial to the Twin Towers are still in development, slowed in part by a need to respect the relatives and their personal tragedy, while at the same time providing a public place where people from around the world can come together to reflect. Finding artistic vocabulary to comprehend shattering events may take time. Benjamin Britten’s wrenching and powerful War Requiem, which we performed in 2002, was written for the 1962 reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral – in other words, some 17 years after the end of the war which had destroyed the original building. So visual as well as musical artists have a difficult task in providing public art, and that difficulty is compounded when they are asked to quickly digest enormous events. Perhaps that is one reason why some art which serves the immediate needs of a particular occasion proves in the long run to have more historical than artistic interest.

In On the Transmigration of Souls John Adams seems to recognize the twin imperatives of public art which will have lasting value: it pays homage to the particular, but it also puts this in the context of the enduring. The chorus and the boys invoke the pain of particular losses, reciting the texts inspired by individual griefs. But this is framed by the cityscape sounds, and by music that ranges from lyrical to outright noisy – the affirmation of life going on, even as the souls are remembered and honored, not least by musical performances like those we will be giving this September.

It is too early to say whether this piece will remain a staple of the musical repertoire long after the events are forgotten. It is also hard to predict how audiences will react to a one-time hearing of such a challenging and potentially disturbing piece, or how we will react as performers when (or if?) we transcend the hard work of counting for long enough to feel ourselves to be transmitters of the artistic inspiration. What we can say for sure is that societies need artists who dare to give new voice to the shared and conflicting sentiments inspired by world events. We would be impoverished as a nation if we were to leave this task solely to news anchors and to Hollywood directors.

Susan Scarrow

Manager, Houston Symphony Chorus

September 10, 2006

1 For more on this piece and its context, see Esteban Buch, 2003. Beethoven’s Ninth and Politics. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

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