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Music as Crime

A few years ago, as part of my Master's degree, I took a course entitled "Art and Crime". Besides the obvious connotations of theft and forgery, we also examined "art as a crime" and "the artist as a criminal". I thought it might be fun to

examine classical music the same way.

The visual arts and music are found under the same umbrella "art" but each employs different senses and music requires an interpreter (performing musician) to realize the composer's score.

Theft and forgery are not relevant in classical music. For a long time, it was considered to be much more skilled as a composer to create a new work based on something previously composed. For many years all liturgical music was based on Gregorian chants. The chant had to be there, even if only a fragment of a chant, in order for it to be considered church music in the Roman Catholic Church. (See previous blog post on Hildegaard de Bingen for a rare exception).

Classical composers have also been remarkably collaborative; they have assisted each other, and completed works in progress due to a composer's death. Transcriptions and arrangements of works abound in the literature.

However, art/music as a crime presents some interesting parallels. When considering art as a crime, graffiti is a prime example. Is graffiti simply vandalism or property damage, or is it art? Is the graffiti of Banksy vandalism or a powerful artistic social commentary?

There are similar examples in music. During WWII, the Nazis made the performance of Chopin's music in occupied Poland a criminal offense. Shostakovitch spent most of his life in fear of being arrested, sent to a Gulag or even executed as so many of his contemporaries had been. Stalin decreed that Russian music must incorporate Russian themes and be free of "Western" influence. So while Shostakovitch was an internationally famous composer, his music was potentially considered to be a crime in his own country.

The idea of an artist as a criminal becomes more complex. Do the criminal actions of an artist denigrate his work? This issue has come to the forefront in recent times mostly due to the "MeToo" movement: Woody Allen, Harvey Epstein, Bill Cosby, etc. Can we, or should we, separate their work from their criminality?

The sculptor Caravaggio achieved great fame as an artist before he became a serial killer. His works are still revered.

Richard Strauss was an established and popular German composer prior to WWII. While all of his contemporary composers fled Nazi Germany for North America and neutral European states, Strauss decided to remain in Germany. He was offered a substantial amount of money to head Germany's music program dedicated to promoting German music. Strauss rationalized his decision by thinking that he was "protecting" classical music. Eventually his conscience won out when the state decided to ban the music of Mendelssohn because of his Jewish ancestry. He and his wife fled to Switzerland where he lived out his life in ignomy and never composed anything of note after this. But his earlier compositions live on. The theme from his tone poem "Thus Spake Zarathustra" is one of the most recognized in all of music due to the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey".

The works of Richard Wagner are coming under increased scrutiny due to that composer's virulent anti-Sematism.

Does the work of artists/composers redeem their bad behaviour?

I welcome your thoughts and opinions!

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A very provative topic Cynthia. Interesting how artistic expression becomes politicized as the voice of protest (Shostakovich!) as well as being enlisted in support of patriotic ideals and nationalistic aspirations. (Elgar!) As for separating the contribution of an artist to the field (Wagner and opera) from his or her moral judgements (Wagner - the anti-semite) this is a very challenging question. I would truly love to hear from others on this point as in the wake of the Me To movement so many iconic figures in music (James Levine, Placido Domingo and so on) are being brought down. Thanks for the article Cynthia!

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