By Dr. William O. Baker
In preparation for recent performances of Beethoven works, I read Jan Swafford’s magnificent biography of the composer: Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. If you enjoy reading about our musical heroes, I commend this book to you. I also highly recommend Swafford’s earlier biography of Brahms.
In Beethoven’s “middle period,” the composer made a number of statements against political oppression and in proclamation of liberty and justice. His only opera, Fidelio, was just marginally successful because it was out of favor with the French occupiers of Vienna. Beethoven’s 3rd symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte until Beethoven came to understand Napoleon as a dictator. Beethoven famously tore away the title page and renamed the work the “Eroica” (Heroic) Symphony.
Many choral enthusiasts will know the name Jean Berger, 1909-2002. The Jewish Berger was born Arthur Schlossberg in Westphalia. He escaped to Paris in 1933. He fled the Nazis again in 1939, moving from Paris to Rio de Janeiro. Finally, in 1942, he came to America, a nation he called “the bastion of freedom.” He joined the US Army that year and was granted American citizenship in 1943.
Music history is littered with composers and performers who escaped one form of government tyranny or another. Great 20th century Russian composers of choral music, Alexander Kopylov and Alexander Gretchaninov, found their way to the United States to escape communist oppression by the Soviets.
Legendary American conductor Robert Shaw, the man I consider to be my mentor, once said in my hearing: “There is something in the nature of bigness that eats at excellence.” We can see this in our own lifetime with the monopoly excesses of big government, big business, and big just-about-everything. There grows a sense of entitlement that crushes creativity and innovation. That same sense of entitlement creates a perverse drive to eliminate any ideas that are in conflict or competition with the established order.
The greatest threat to bigness, entitlement and established order is freedom. Freedom is the oxygen of the arts. I believe, uncompromisingly, that the arts cannot thrive without freedom. The freedom of the arts must be absolute. The capacity to speak, sing, act, draw, paint, craft, or think anything at all, no matter how profound or absurd, no matter how conventional or controversial, no matter what political stripe, no matter what religious viewpoint, no matter what questions or answers are raised for the human predicament, all must be without limit.
The first day one voice believes (wrongly) that it has the right to cancel or silence another, the slippery slope toward true oppression and tyranny is inevitable. The arts have prospered in America as they have in no other culture precisely because of the protections of free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and freedom of self-determination that are enshrined in our founding documents.
On September 17, 1787, as delegates exited the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “What kind of government do we have?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it!”
The genius of the republic is that it enshrines the rights of all people, even when the will of the majority would be to violate the rights of the minority. It recognizes that freedom and liberty are birthrights from God’s own hand, not largess bestowed by magistrates, potentates, and governments. Our glorious and blessed founding documents were created to stay the hand of government to prevent the violation of those unalienable rights.
I’ve lived long enough to have witnessed first-hand a quarter of our nation’s history. I’ve seen brilliant presidents, and I’ve seen imbeciles. I’ve seen recessions and economic malaise, and I’ve seen booming prosperity. Never before have I been more concerned about freedom and liberty, particularly when it comes to the arts. The consolidation that has arisen in recent years of media conglomerates, social media magnates, international and unaccountable corporations, group-think academia, and unelected bureaucrats empowered and willing to curb freedom of thought, speech and expression, is truly frightening.
The arts must stand tall for unfettered freedom, liberty and justice. We may not agree with everything that is expressed. In fact, we may well find much of it offensive. Still, the freedom to create must be fought for and protected at all cost. The words “cancel” and “silence” must be stricken from our common vocabulary. When one voice is silenced, the voices of all are at risk.
Please understand this is not intended to be political. I hope each one of us holds passionate political views. I certainly do. I hope that those political viewpoints are as diverse as the number of people in our musical community. It is in our diversity of thought, even more than our diversity of skin colors, backgrounds and breeds, that we are bound together in the human family. When I am in disagreement with my brothers and sisters, may I fight all the more bravely for their freedom to proclaim their passions, even when those passions are in conflict with my own.
“The God Who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time. The hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1775
The free voice of the arts must never be silenced.
The free voice of the arts must never be canceled.