Twelve verses that changed the world. In early 1939, Abel Meeropol, a white Jew, set twelve lyrical verses to music and called the result Strange Fruit. It is the gut-wrenching expression of the author’s horror at the escalation of social violence and racialist excesses in the United States. The “strange fruit” hanging from the tree in this tiny song is the body of a black man who has been lynched.
In the years thereafter, Billie Holiday, one of the most successful jazz singers of the 20th century, programmed this musical manifesto as the closing song in all her concerts. The lights went out and the small spotlight trained on the singer turned into a blinding light mercilessly exposing all the horrors of the time. The song became a hymn of protest for the 1940s, and no one experiencing it in these concerts was ever quite the same again. It was a ritual that left its indelible mark on the audience and an excellent argument against all those who believe that music is little more than an acoustical joss stick. Music can indeed change the world.
Or take the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. A different setting, a different song, but a similar effect. Bob Dylan, then 22, joined forces with same-age Joan Baez, the Afro-American Free Singers and the white folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary to perform a simple song. It was a song that asked nine questions, gave no answers and yet provoked responses: Blowin’ in the Wind.
The verdict was unanimous. The song provided a huge impetus for the civil rights movement. Black and white Americans, united in the struggle for racial equality. Together with We Shall Overcome, the song became the hymn of the civil rights movement and later the peace movement. Do we still believe that music has no impact?
»How many roads must
a man walk down
before you can call him a man? […]
Yes, and how many times
must the cannonballs fly
Before they are forever banned?
The answer my friend
is blowin’ in the wind. […]«
»Southern trees bear a
Blood on the leaves and
blood on the root,
Black body swinging in
the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging
from the poplar trees.«
Strange Fruit, Blowin’ in the Wind and We Shall Overcome are songs that stand for a particular era, for collective attitudes, for a specific social and political situation. Even today, they have lost none of their suggestive power. Hearing them catapults the past into the present. The very special relationship between music and time is at the heart of this phenomenon. It is both the mirror and the vehicle of a given age. Texts set to music all have this power, from archaic cultures and the great songs of Romanticism all the way up to the music of our own age, an age so volatile that only music can capture its essence.
All songs are a reflection of the societal conditions prevailing at the time they were written. They are ambassadors of a past that with all its concerns, hardships and moments of glory, with all its victories and defeats echoes down to us through the corridors of time. This is how Franz Schubert’s songs relate to the politics of Metternich. This is how Billie Holiday demonstrates her attitude to racism and Joan Baez her rejection of the Vietnam War.
Love and loss, bliss and anguish, reality and dream – and yes, protest as well. Sentiment is very often the cloak in which political protest hides its true face. Is Schubert’s Winterreise all about a lovelorn youngster indulging in a colossal bout of self-commiseration? Or is it full of coded messages to all freedom-loving intellectuals in that repressive era?
Schubert knew exactly what he was doing. After all, he shared his lodgings with Johann Mayrhofer, who earned his living as one of Metternich’s censors. And there were very good reasons why he left the last stanza of Christian Schubart’s poem The Trout unset. That last stanza was a direct reference to Schubart’s incarceration in the notorious Hohenasperg prison. It would certainly have fallen foul of the censors and the opportunity for subtle protest would have been lost with it.
These are the stories songs can tell us. The way they move and affect us has to do with the universality of the issues they address. But we read and hear them with the eye and ears of the present.
Some statements are likely to make many respectable classical music-lovers’ blood boil. One of them would be to put Bob Dylan and Franz Schubert into one basket, as I have just done. And then I have the temerity to suggest that the two genres are equally “serious”. This gets people’s backs up.
When that happens, I am always reminded of the image used by Alessandro Baricco to debunk the “genuine” classical music fan: “In the musical world, the consumers of serious music are convinced – with some justification – that they inhabit a kind of Switzerland, an island in the ocean of appalling taste. By defending the established order, they defend their own otherness and with it their own superiority.” This surely is the heart of the matter. Self-definition in the shape of segregation. But is there really such a thing as “good” and “bad” in music?
Well yes, of course there is. But is “serious” music necessarily superior? The retrograde bias implicit in this traditional view is liable to get us bogged down in special pleading for a canon that no one can really justify. Song is an excellent example of the way this can happen.
First of all we have the problem of definition. What do we mean when we talk of the “art song”? We Germans have very few doubts on the subject. Benignly and perhaps a little patronisingly, we appeal to the grand tradition we call our own, peopled by geniuses like Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Stretch things a little bit and we are prepared to include Hugo Wolf, Mahler and – all right – Zemlinsky. But if anyone starts taking up the cudgels for Aribert Reimann or Wolfgang Rihm, well, you have to draw the line somewhere!
This too touches on the heart of the matter. I can stand out from the masses by roundly rejecting all the “modernskis”. After all, I know what I’m talking about. I have the relevant codes at my finger-tips.
Not many people would agree that Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit can have just as devastating effect on us as Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. There is little appreciation of the fact that songs by Bob Dylan or Tom Waits revolve around very similar topics to those addressed by Schubert or Schumann. A pity, perhaps. Whether we have folksongs, lieder, pop-songs or mélodies in mind, they all function, as Thomas Hampson has said, as mirrors of the age they were written in. But understanding them as such is becoming increasingly difficult. Some topics they address are beyond our ken, others simply leave us cold.
But enough of this lamenting. For there is hope: the singers themselves. Suddenly we have someone who comes along and tells us these stories as if they had been written yesterday, vividly, intensely, juxtaposing them in unheard-of ways, caring nothing for genre limits. Immediately these narratives come right up close. Our breath quickens and we understand perfectly although in absolute terms our knowledge may be imperfect. This is undiscovered country in which new light is cast on the things we thought we knew and exploration handsomely repays the effort involved. This was my own experience, coming from Schubert, discovering Dylan.
I trust lied interpreters implicitly. Our job as a festival, as an academy, as an international lied centre is to create scope for new ideas – which are sometimes not as new as they may appear. Scope for an exchange on how we can link past and present to shape the world we live in and map out the path into the future.
But it is just as much our job to create scope for the development of projects that motivate us to engage with the repertoire in entirely new ways. In short, we want to create possibilities. Our lied academy, our “Neuland.Lied” and our “Lied.Lab” are three instances of this endeavour. The question underlying them all is: How do we want to live? We have the freedom to speak out. In the past that was anything but self-evident. And the staggering realisation borne in on us by current events is that this freedom may not be cast in stone.