Composers’ Political Compass
Writers and artists have been generally more engaged in the big political debates of their day than composers, and their views are often more easily discerned through their works. So how well can we tell the positions of the great composers?
Woody Allen quipped that every time he heard Wagner, he was overcome with the urge to invade Poland. The positions of most others are less clear in their work, although we can hear the difference between the assertive nationalism of Wagner and the gentle folk nationalism of Dvořák or Grieg. In the case of opera, of course, there are more clues. Mozart’s, for example, dealt with class war (The Marriage of Figaro) and the liberal values of the Enlightenment. Biographies often provide helpful political information as well. Some composers, like Bartók, were known to have championed the underdog and sometimes clashed with the authorities as a result. Others, like Stravinsky, Mascagni and Puccini, enthusiastically embraced fascism. Still others, like Smetana and Tchaikovsky, were tolerant individualists who kept their distance from mass movements.
Because of the relative paucity of information, our composers’ political chart is largely for amusement. People like Schubert, Bach, Debussy and Donizetti, who don’t seem to have left any hints of their politics, have been left out altogether.
This chart was partially inspired by an interesting article on the subject that originally appeared in BBC Music Magazine, April 1997.