Liberty and Music

Ian Buruma over at Project Syndicate:


All totalitarian systems have one thing in common: by crushing all forms of political expression except adulation of the regime, they make everything political. There is no such thing in North Korea as non-political sports or culture. So there is no question that the invitation to the New York Philharmonic was meant to burnish the prestige of a regime, ruled by The Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il, whose standing is so low – even in neighboring China – that it needs all the burnishing it can get.

Interviews with some of the musicians revealed an awareness of this. A violinist was quoted as saying that “a lot of us are…not buying into this party line that music transcends the political.” She was “sure that it [would] be used by Pyongyang and our own government in attempting to make political points.” The conductor, Lorin Maazel, who chose a program of Wagner, Dvorak, Gershwin, and Bernstein, was less cynical. The concert, he said, would “take on a momentum of its own,” and have a positive effect on North Korean society.

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? But could he possibly be right? No one, not even Maazel, pretends that one concert by a great Western orchestra can blow a dictatorship away, but authoritarians’ wariness of the subversive power of music dates back to Plato’s Republic . In Plato’s view, music, if not strictly controlled, inflames the passions and makes people unruly. He wanted to limit musical expression to sounds that were conducive to harmony and order.