Those who complain that Zubin Mehta’s recent concert for peace in Srinagar politicizes the music that he so brilliantly conducted with his Bavarian forces, forget that Western classical music has been intimately tied to politics at least since the time of Mozart.
Mozart’s great opera, Le Nozze di Figaro (1786), based on a controversial play by the French writer Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais that had been banned by the censors, came as close as any artist had ever dared to criticize the excesses and corruption of that autocratic age. When Figaro, the servant, taunts his aristocratic employer, Count Almaviva, whose foibles are publicly exposed at the opera’s end, Mozart’s message to his courtly patrons could not have been clearer.
Mozart’s next opera, Don Giovanni (1787), contains a famous and contested passage, Viva la liberta! (Long live liberty), in which the libertine anti-hero of the title makes a toast to liberty, in music which is at once martial and stirring. While not all scholars agree on how to interpret it—does the Don refer to political freedom or individual license—one of the greatest of musicologists, the late Charles Rosen, forcefully argued that Mozart is crying out for political liberty on the eve of the French Revolution (1789).
It is fitting that Mehta chose Beethoven for the central portion of his concert: no composer has been more overtly political, nor written music that has more often been appropriated for political ends. Significantly, the Leonore Overture No. 3, which contains music from Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio (1805), is explicitly about the victory of justice over despotism.
And, of course, the concert’s central work, the mighty Fifth Symphony, has long been interpreted—rightly or wrongly—as the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, however you would like to phrase it. During the Second World War, the opening four note motto signified “V for Victory”, from its telegraphic association.
Whether one likes it or not, or agrees or not, there is a political message in Mehta’s choice of repertoire and venue. And using Beethoven to put across a political message has a long tradition, as I have suggested.
Days after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the late Leonard Bernstein conducted a justly celebrated performance of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony on both sides of the former divide. Controversially, Bernstein replaced the word “Freude” (“joy”) with “Freiheit” (“freedom”) in the famous choral finale, to punctuate the significance of the event.
Giving classical music concerts in controversial places is not something new. Bernstein himself performed for the Israeli forces during the Six Day War (1967), something that Mehta himself has done during later Arab-Israeli conflicts. And on the other side of the divide, as it were, the Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim has courageously conducted in the occupied Palestinian territories in the face of enormous hostility from the Israeli right.
Indeed, Barenboim himself furnishes the finest example of the way in which music can be used both politically and for the greater social good. Together with the late Edward Said, the great American cultural theorist and outspoken advocate for the Palestinian cause, Barenboim brought together young musicians from Israel, Arab nations, the occupied Palestinian territories, and elsewhere, to make music together.
Dubbed the “West-East Divan Project”, this noble initiative takes its name from a “diwan”, or collection, of poems by the great nineteenth century German poet Goethe, who in turn was inspired by the mediaeval Persian poet Hafez—which captures well the concept that music and art may bridge cultural, social, historical, or political divides.
Barenboim and Said fervently believed that bringing young people together would foster goodwill and amity that would, in its small way, percolate back to their countries of origin. While it would be naïve to assume that music will make conflict and war disappear, it would be needlessly cynical to argue that friendships fostered across fraught political terrain are without value.
This indeed brings us back to Mehta’s Srinagar concert, with its avowed aim of promoting a message of peace in a place ravaged by conflict. Critics will no doubt continue to see it as legitimizing government policy in a place of contestation. And it is disappointing, although to be expected, that the audience consisted of invited guests rather than being open to ordinary folk, as well as the fact that it was felt necessary to lock down the entire area for the purpose of the concert.
But the bold and declarative performance of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony that Mehta laid down—a throwback to an older performing tradition, rather than the fleet interpretations in fashion today—did, indeed, cry victory.
Even if that victory over conflict is premature, and the contours of its resolution remain uncertain, Mehta, a proud Indian, was declaring—with Beethoven—that the greatest victory is personal as much as it is political: conquering the fears that cripple us and hold us back from achieving the greatness that lies within our grasp if we but make an effort.
That, one hopes, will be the abiding message of Zubin Mehta’s concert for peace.
Vivek Dehejia is an economics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and is co-author of Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India (Random House India, 2012).