Mitchell Cohen: The Politics of Opera

CohenThe Politics of Opera takes readers on a fascinating journey into the entwined development of opera and politics, from the Renaissance through the turn of the nineteenth century. What political backdrops have shaped opera? How has opera conveyed the political ideas of its times? Delving into European history and thought and an array of music by such greats as Lully, Rameau, and Mozart, Mitchell Cohen reveals how politics—through story lines, symbols, harmonies, and musical motifs—has played an operatic role both robust and sotto voce.

Politics is not usually the first thing most people think about when it comes to opera. Why did you write a book on politics and opera?

MC: It was natural. I have a passion for opera and I am a professor of political theory and co-edited Dissent, a political magazine. I began writing the book in order to explore the intersection of two apparently disparate domains. Moreover, if the relation between aesthetic ideas and political ideas interests you, opera provides a great terrain for exploration. Of course, not all operas are political, but more are—or have political implications—than many people realize. I should add: politics does not consume all there is to say about those operas that are political. The Politics of Opera is about how and when two domains come together, and I define politics broadly. In any event, there was also a selfish dimension to my project: I had to go to the opera for work. There are worse things to have to do.

Your book is unusual because of the time span you cover, roughly from the birth of opera through Mozart, some two hundred years. Why choose this period?

MC: Well, let’s start at the beginning. Modern politics—the modern state in Europe—was, broadly speaking, born at the time of the Renaissance. Opera emerged in the late Renaissance. In the last decades of the 16th century, humanist intellectuals in Florence debated about “ancient” and “modern” music—they meant Greek antiquity and their own day. Galileo’s father was one of them. Their conversations led to experiments that, in turn, became opera at the turn of the 17th century. In roughly this era, in Italy and France, important debates occurred and books were published about politics and the nature of politics because it was transforming. One might say that Machiavelli, decades earlier, began the discussion. Of course he didn’t write operas (he did write plays). The parallel between the development of a new form of politics and a new form of musical stage art intrigued me. But in Mozart’s day there was a massive political crack-up, the French revolution—there was, then, great upheaval and great genius at the same time. That’s why I took the late 18th century as a natural historical border. The Politics of Opera seeks to sink operas into the political times in which they were first imagined and not to imagine them as somehow standing outside their times. Another way of saying that is that if you want truly to grasp the politics of an opera you must look deeply both into history and into the ideas that were current when it was written and composed. You have to know what was being argued about then and not just impose your own contemporary preoccupations, although your own preoccupations may be enlightening too—so long as you keep an eye on the differences between your ideas and those found, say, in an opera by Monteverdi or Rameau or Mozart.

For whom are you writing?

MC: I try to write for a broad intelligent public and for scholars. I sought to make a contribution to our understanding of interesting, not-always-evident matters but in accessible ways. I hope that opera fans along with scholars and students of history, culture, music and politics will all be engaged by it. I hope they’ll learn something of what I learned in writing and researching it.

Your book’s prologue speaks of the itinerary of your explorations. What was the route?

MC: Italy, France, Vienna. Florence under the Medicis was the obvious place to begin because those humanists I mentioned were talking about relations between music, feelings, and ideas. The earliest opera for which we still have both the libretto and the music retold the story of Eurydice and Orpheus for a political event, the marriage in 1600 of Maria de’ Medici to France King Henri IV in Florence (He didn’t show up but sent a stand-in!). But then there was a leap of musical imagination when, in Mantua just a few years later, Claudio Monteverdi began composing operas, first of all his remarkable Orfeo. I am always tempted to call him “the great Monteverdi” and indeed he was the first great composer of opera, although he wrote many other wonderful compositions too. He would eventually be fired from Mantua’s ducal court but then he received a much more prestigious position in Venice, a republic. Towards the end of his life he composed some amazing operas in collaboration with librettists who were close to power in Venice. This included the first directly political and historical opera, The Coronation of Poppea. In it the philosopher Seneca and Roman emperor Nero quarrel over ‘reason’ versus ’emotion’ in ruling. From Italy I went to France, more precisely to the birth of French opera thanks to Jean-Baptiste Lully during the reign of Louis XIV. Then I turned to the quarrel in the 18th century between a great composer and theorist of harmony, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and a popular but not-so-great composer of opera, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Yes, the Rousseau, the famous political philosopher who advocated sovereignty of the people but who also aspired to be a composer. Poor Rameau! Poor Rousseau! Rameau was the great artist and my book devotes considerable space to his opera Les Indes galantes, a remarkable opera that in part reflects the Age of Exploration—what others would call the Age of Imperialism. But Rameau was not a spectacular writer and Rousseau’s music, well, let’s just say you wouldn’t want to go too often to his best-known opera, Le Devin du Village (the Village Soothsayer). However, you really wouldn’t want to get into polemics with him since he was a master of them. 

From France I went on to Vienna, to Metastasio, the Imperial Poet of the Holy Roman Empire whose librettos were set by many composers, including Vivaldi. For my purposes the most interesting of them was Cato in Utica, which is about the last Roman republican resistance to the rise of the Roman Empire—Cato versus Julius Casesar. Of course, the book must finally come to Mozart’s operas.

As I looked at all these operas I tried to contextualize them and also to show parallels with key political ideas and problems of the times—ideas and problems that are embedded in them. So readers will come across a number of important thinkers and writers—some well-known, some less-known today—weaving throughout the book. These range from Machiavelli and Tacitus to Jean Bodin, Diderot, Edmund Burke, Rousseau and others.

Was Mozart political?

MC: Mozart was, of course, a man of music before anything else. We should be forever grateful for that. The more you study him, the more amazing he becomes. He didn’t write on politics but he certainly had problems with authority. His operas are filled with political themes and political issues of his time. He didn’t write his librettos but he helped to shape them. I try in The Politics of Opera to give a close reading (and hearing) to the results. The book actually stretches a little beyond Mozart and rounds off by discussing a little known work. The German poet Goethe wrote a sequel to The Magic Flute a few years after Mozart’s death. Goethe never finished it and nobody was brave enough to write music for it. In it there is a regrouping of the forces of darkness. Led by the infamous Queen of the Night they launch an assault against Sarastro’s enlightened realm—he is on a sabbatical—and Tamino and Pamina. Goethe wrote it in the mid 1790s. It is easy to think of it in light of wars and politics in Europe just then. There is, of course, much more to be found in it too.

You certainly cover a lot of territory. How do you approach it all?

MC: By using insights drawn from many thinkers and varied methods—political, philosophical, musicalogical, historical—in different combinations. I don’t impose one model on everything. I prefer what I call a methodological medley. It seems to me a particularly fruitful way to be inter-disciplinary.

MitchellCohen Cohen is professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York and an editor emeritus of Dissent. His books include The Wager of Lucien Goldmann and The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart. He has been a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton and has written for many publications including the New York Times Sunday Book Review and the Times Literary Supplement (London).

 

Get ready for the Bard Music Festival

PucciniThe Bard Music Festival began in 1990 to promote new ways of presenting the history of music to a contemporary audience. This year the theme is ‘Puccini and His World.’ Over the course of two weekends, August 5-7 and August 12-14, festivalgoers from the world of music and opera will participate in panels and listen to music contemporary to Giacomo Puccini. To learn more about his life and times, Giacomo Puccini and His World, edited by Arman Schwartz and Emanuele Senici, is essential reading. This collection of essays by an international roster of music specialists explores a wide array of topics, from Puccini’s engagement with spoken theater and operetta, to the philosophical problems raised by ‘realist’ opera, to his complex interactions with the Italian fascist state. For more information, follow the conversation on Twitter with @Bard_FisherCtr.

“Carlos Chávez and His World” at the Bard Music Festival starting August 7th

Saavedra jacketCarlos Chávez (1899–1978), subject of this year’s Bard Music Festival, is the central figure in Mexican music of the twentieth century and among the most eminent of all Latin American modernist composers. The seventh child of a Creole family, his highly individual style—diatonic, dissonant, contrapuntal—addressed both modernity and Mexico’s indigenous past. Chávez was also an educator, journalist, music theorist, and conductor and founder of the Orquesta Sinfónica de México. He became an integral part of the emerging music scene in the United States in the 1920s.

From Carlos Chávez, Mexican Modernist in the New York Times article by William Robin:

This summer represents the Bard Music Festival’s first examination of a Latin American composer, focusing on one who, though little known today, may have shaped American music more than any other. Along with building an impressive oeuvre couched in an acerbic modernist idiom, Mr. Chávez almost single-handedly remolded Mexican culture through his official roles in national arts institutions after the Mexican Revolution.

Today, Princeton University Press is proud to release Carlos Chávez and His World, the volume to accompany the Bard Music Festival’s concerts and panels over the course of the next two weekends. Robin writes in The New York Times:

“The idea that he was a quintessential ‘Mexican composer’ and that in his case it was not a picturesque, postcard folklore, but some sort of really internal, almost racial essence, marked him forever,” the musicologist Leonora Saavedra said recently. An associate professor at the University of California, Riverside, Ms. Saavedra serves as the Bard festival’s scholar in residence and has edited an insightful volume of accompanying essays published by Princeton University Press.

Read the rest here.

Bard Music Festival 2015:
Carlos Chávez and His World
Bard College
August 7-9 and August 14-16, 2015

If you’d like to see a schedule of Bard Music Festival events, here’s where you can find one.

Leonora Saavedra, author of Carlos Chávez and His World, is associate professor of music at the University of California, Riverside.

Q&A with Damon Phillips, Author of “Shaping Jazz”

Damon Phillips, author of Shaping Jazz: Cities, Labels, and the Global Emergence of an Art Form, recently sat down with Princeton University Press’ Eric Schwartz to discuss his new book and some of the topics it covers.

There are over a million jazz recordings, but only a few hundred tunes have been recorded repeatedly. Why did a minority of songs become jazz standards? Why do some songs–and not others–get rerecorded by many musicians? Shaping Jazz answers this question and more, exploring the underappreciated yet crucial roles played by initial production and markets–in particular, organizations and geography–in the development of early twentieth-century jazz.

Damon Phillips considers why places like New York played more important roles as engines of diffusion than as the sources of standards. He demonstrates why and when certain geographical references in tune and group titles were considered more desirable. He also explains why a place like Berlin, which produced jazz abundantly from the 1920s to early 1930s, is now on jazz’s historical sidelines. Phillips shows the key influences of firms in the recording industry, including how record companies and their executives affected what music was recorded, and why major companies would rerelease recordings under artistic pseudonyms. He indicates how a recording’s appeal was related to the narrative around its creation, and how the identities of its firm and musicians influenced the tune’s long-run popularity.

Applying fascinating ideas about market emergence to a music’s commercialization, Shaping Jazz offers a unique look at the origins of a groundbreaking art form.

Damon J. Phillips is the James P. Gorman Professor of Business Strategy at Columbia University and a faculty affiliate of Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies and the Center for Organizational Innovation.

Two for Tuesday – The Musical Mind & Shaping Jazz

Music is universal but what makes it so special? Why do some jazz songs become standards and others not? We are pleased to announce the publication of two new books to explore these questions and more. We invite you to read sample chapters online.

j10027reflections
Reflections on the Musical Mind:
An Evolutionary Perspective
by Jay Schulkin
With a foreword by Robert O. Gjerdingen

Read the introduction online:
http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i10027.pdf

What’s so special about music? We experience it internally, yet at the same time it is highly social. Music engages our cognitive/affective and sensory systems. We use music to communicate with one another–and even with other species–the things that we cannot express through language. Music is both ancient and ever evolving. Without music, our world is missing something essential. In Reflections on the Musical Mind, Jay Schulkin offers a social and behavioral neuroscientific explanation of why music matters. His aim is not to provide a grand, unifying theory. Instead, the book guides the reader through the relevant scientific evidence that links neuroscience, music, and meaning.

Jay Schulkin is Research Professor in the Department of Neuroscience and member at the Center for the Brain Basis of Cognition, both at Georgetown University. He is the author of numerous books, including Roots of Social Sensibility and Neural Function, Bodily Sensibility: Intelligent Action, Cognitive Adaptation: A Pragmatist Perspective, and Adaptation and Well-Being: Social Allostasis.

 
j10026jazzShaping Jazz:
Cities, Labels, and the Global Emergence of an Art Form
by Damon J. Phillips

Read the introduction online:
http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i10026.pdf

There are over a million jazz recordings, but only a few hundred tunes have been recorded repeatedly. Why did a minority of songs become jazz standards? Why do some songs–and not others–get rerecorded by many musicians? Shaping Jazz answers this question and more, exploring the underappreciated yet crucial roles played by initial production and markets–in particular, organizations and geography–in the development of early twentieth-century jazz.

Damon J. Phillips is the James P. Gorman Professor of Business Strategy at Columbia University and a faculty affiliate of Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies and the Center for Organizational Innovation.