The Tehran Symphony Orchestra in Geneva and Richard Taruskin's "Common Fallacy"

Writing in this past Thursday’s issue of The New York Times (February 4th), Michael Kimmelman compares the European tour on which the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent the Tehran Symphony Orchestra to similar tours on which the former Soviet Union would send its own world-class performers, such Sviatoslav Richter.1 The concerts these performers gave served both to distract Western audiences from the dissidents the Soviet government was exiling to the gulags and to force those audiences into “the moral compromise [that] attending such propaganda events” would require. Given that the Iranian symphony’s tour took place “around the time the Iranian government executed two more political prisoners, charging nine others with waging war against God, a capital offense,”2 it is likely that the Islamic Republic was trying to implement a similar strategy. Indeed, the title of the music the orchestra performed, “Peace and Friendship Symphony,” by Majid Entezami, would seem to make that strategy explicit. Kimmelman, however, does not have kind words for the music, calling it “a four-movement jeremiad of martial bombast and almost unfathomable incompetence and silliness, originally performed, according to Tehran Times, last February in Iran to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the revolution [and] retitled for this occasion.”

What struck me most about Kimmelman’s article, though, was not what he had to say about the similarities between what Tehran was trying to do last month and what Moscow did during the Cold War, but rather what he had to say about the differences:

The difference now isn’t just that the Tehran orchestra playing a pathetic Peace and Friendship Symphony is such a far cry from Emil Gilels playing Beethoven’s Emperor concerto. More fundamentally, it’s that a tour by an anointed symphony orchestra from the other side barely registers in the Western political consciousness. In an Internet age when everyone’s supposedly savvy to crude propaganda, the presumption seems to be that the Iranian tour doesn’t even rise to the threshold of newsworthiness.

But this presumption is a result of what the American musicologist Richard Taruskin calls a common fallacy. The fallacy, he has written, consists in turning “a blind eye on the morally or politically dubious aspects of serious music,” as if “the only legitimate object of praise or censure in art” is whether it’s good or not.

“Art is not blameless,” Mr. Taruskin writes. “Art can inflict harm.”

We take the blame-worthiness of art for granted when it comes to popular culture, criticizing Avatar, for example, for being yet one more movie about a white guy who saves a nature-loving people of color or the writers of a show like Battle Star Galactica for how they write rape into the show’s narrative; but it is good to be reminded that no art, not even classical music, is without political significance, that it too can be used as propaganda, to reinforce, or to subvert, the status quo.

In the conclusion to his review, Kimmelman quotes an Iranian businessman living in Geneva. This man was angry because he kept “seeing Ahmadinejad’s face in the music.” He said, however, that his heart “goes out to the musicians. They’re victims like the rest of us.”

Cross-posted on It’s All Connected

  1. Interestingly, the piece has two different titles: “A Swiss Concert For an Audience Back in Tehran” is the print version; the online version reads, “The Sour Notes of Iran’s Art Diplomacy.” []
  2. And some of them are likely to be executed as well, as the government in Iran gears up to intimidate the opposition further in the days before February 11th, the anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic. []
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