Vortrag von Michael Custodis
Lecture of Michael Custodis at the IAMIC Conference at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg  
Photo:  German Music Information Centre
Against the background of the war in Ukraine, Michael Custodis reflects on the political content and politicisation of music.

Right at the beginning of Russia’s current war against Ukraine the music world experienced a new variation of the very old question relating to the fragile balance of music and politics. Three of the most prominent instances concern opera superstar Anna Netrebko and the conductors Valeri Gergijew and Teodor Currentzis. Resulting from their hesitation respectively their unwillingness to sever their ties to Vladimir Putin and to condemn Russia’s aggression in recent years against bordering states they lost contracts with international ensembles and institutions within days or have to face critical articles in Europe and the United States. Many international artists and ensembles in turn canceled their engagements with Russian stages and now refuse to perform in Russia in the near future. Numerous other initiatives express their solidarity with Ukraine either by performing the Ukrainian national anthem at the beginning of their regular concerts, with programs featuring music from the Ukraine or by organising special events to raise money for charity funds.

As press reviews show it seems to be difficult to agree on standards for discussing such matters. At the same time we are all familiar with similar situations in which we simply cannot avoid giving answers, in which we need to defend our opinions or make decisions. But where do we find appropriate codes of conduct? Do standards of politics (which are controversial in themselves) overrule internal manners of musical autonomy? How provoking was Karlheinz Stockhausen’s remark that the crashing towers of New York’s World Trade Center were ‘Das größte Kunstwerk aller Zeiten’? The same standards could apply to the futurist movement whose protagonists hailed the industrial dimensions of destruction and death on the battlefields of World War I as a revolution of sound. Do these two examples stand for the same question? Or do some of us feel a difference, and, if so, why? Is it because we all incorporated the events of September 11 into our personal memory? In contrast, the futurist glorification of violence and other phenomenon before our lifespan could be experience only through a historic approach.

Although these matters are complicated I will try my best to clarify them as much as it is possible. In my opinion the relationship of music and politics is based primarily on a social and cultural convention, an agreement and understanding among people which has developed over the ages and was adapted to ever new demands while being passed on from generation to generation. My review of historical and systematic constellations will hopefully find your critical approval afterwards in our discussion.

Music and Politics as Antagonists – Systematic Remarks on a Social Convention

Let me begin with a few systematic remarks. Defining ‘music’ and ‘politics’ as two poles in a certain setting, their most antagonistic positions are either forming a union or representing opposites with no direct connections. The assumption that music and politics are simply two sides of the same coin or the conviction that music represents an autonomous world of its own (in which all social norms are suspended) first of all demands explanations of the specific meaning of ‘music’ and ‘politics’. Furthermore, can we agree on or do we refuse to accept the statement that ‘all music incorporates a political attitude’ or respectively that ‘music is a world of its own’?

Usually, the answer does not lie within music itself unless lyrics give a specific content. As limited as the number of parameters in this social understanding of music and politics is, as limitless are the individual possibilities and differences: As far as music is concerned the two most prominent aesthetic perspectives favour either modes of production or reception (‘Produktionsästhetik’ resp. ‘Rezeptionsästhetik’). The example of Wilhelm Furtwängler giving concerts with Adolf Hitler and his Nazi elite as audience demonstrates the question at stake. The conductor and his defenders always insisted that his interpretation of Beethoven, Wagner and other Germanic musical titans transformed the concert into a political vacuum where only the rules and habits of art mattered. Furtwängler’s critics insisted that a concert for Hitler and his staff could never be discussed outside the political arena. So, once again, are we speaking about music and the repertoire including the artistic mastership of the performers or are we discussing a concert as a social affair?

On the part of politics the social impact on music can be very strong as well and can transform pieces into a political statement that originally carried no political message at all. Let me give an example: On December 12th 1941 musicians supporting the civil resistance against the German occupation of Norway gave a concert in Oslo’s Frogner church. Under the baton of female conductor Jenny Guldahl pieces by Dietrich Buxtehude, Franz Schubert, Antonio Sacchini, Georg Friedrich Händel, Nils Larsen, Oskar Merikanto, Sparre Olsen, Agathe Backer Grøndahl and Edvard Grieg were performed. However, the program also included music by Robert Kahn, Felix Mendelssohn, Anton Rubinstein and Peter Tschaikowsky. To advertise this concert the musicians did not hesitate to print the composers’ names on the official poster, a deliberate political statement ignoring the official ban on music by Jewish composers or those of countries with which Germany was at war. This goes to show that these Norwegian musicians neither accepted a separation of music into legal and illegal repertoire nor were the willing to give the NS-propaganda a chance to speak on behalf of classical music in general. Furthermore, this example also touches on difference of centre and periphery: In the centre one can expect to meet with censors and an audience of great expertise because of the many people interested in music, the many performing artists and the great number of concerts all underlying the control of qualified censorship by the authorities. The further one gets to the periphery, the more individual skill is required on the part of the censors to detect the breaches of rules, and on the part of the concert organisers to determine the authorities’ lack of musical competence.

Historical Milestones

A glance into the history of our dichotomy of ‘music’ and ‘politics’ brings us to a first theoretical cornerstone in Plato’s well known and often readapted assumptions, discussed in detail in his theory of the state. For Plato music turned a threat as soon as certain modes representing ancient, traditional values were used as means of innovation thus giving social unrest a chance and thereby endangering the state. In consequence, if the young generation would question the foundations of education, the political system in general would weaken. Therefore, Plato opted for a general control of music to protect the state and the constitution.

As Anastasios Giannarás pointed out in 1975, such apprehensions seem strange to modern generations who consider musical innovation as a necessity and the natural right of the arts.  Nevertheless, numerous examples can be given to show how the relationship of musical and political revolution remained a constant dispute during medieval and early modern times. The praise of monarchs, church dignitaries and patrons was not only a common but even a natural duty of the arts. When the age of enlightenment fundamentally changed the parameters of social, cultural and political life in Europe, the idea of autonomy became a turning point for music as well. It was Immanuel Kant who declared that the necessity and purpose of the arts should not be dictated by external institutions but could originate only from the internal impulses of the arts themselves. Otherwise, art could never serve the moral improvement of humanity. Friedrich Schiller consequently put Kant’s philosophical demands into artistic practice by defining art as a sphere free of subjective purposes so that it can assume its responsibility to foster liberty and the improvement of mankind.

The paradox that the most useful art could only be developed without defining its usefulness – condensed in the idea of artistic autonomy and ‘absolute Musik’ – will now accompany us for a while. During the decades roughly associated with the generations between Beethoven and Wagner the idea of musical autonomy underwent several modifications. If one protagonist should be mentioned whose opinion left a sustaining impact, it might be Eduard Hanslick. He saw a difference between functional music (for purposes such as liturgical service, dance, entertainment and commercial success) and artistic music idealised by abstract instrumental, especially symphonic music.

Although the concept of ‘absolute Musik’ was not limited to Germany, another paradox emerged as the symphonic idea turned into a national paradigm not only proclaimed by German protagonists but also confirmed by international audiences. Countries with dominant operatic traditions did not experience a comparable breakthrough of musical autonomy. Accordingly, the separation of ‘music’ and ‘politics’ became a bourgeois project. ‘Kunstmusik’, ‘Tonkunst’, ‘serious music’ (or whichever synonym you might prefer) became a safe haven for apolitical matters in contradiction to the highly politicised times of the 19th century. One might say that the bourgeois rejection of any political or other dominance of music mirrored the experiences of times when autocratic governments and sovereigns claimed a natural right to control, define, censor and dominate every element of society. It is no surprise that Richard Wagner incorporated this paradox of being a political revolutionist on the barricades of Dresden while being engaged at the same time in establishing his own universe in which he would stage his artistic visions free from any compromise or disturbance.

In the early 20th century the breakthrough of modernism caused another major conflict in the fields of ‘music’ and ‘politics’, with listeners preferring classical and romantic repertoire and supporters of the radical avantgarde. With the outbreak of World War I nearly every European artist born after 1870 was drastically confronted with the brutality of the political conflict. Numerous compositions written under the impression of death, pain, fear and hope remind us how traumatic and lifechanging these experiences of war must have been. The decision became crucial either maintaining one’s personal artistic denial to think in political terms or to accept politics as an integral element to secure music’s contemporary and future relevance. One prominent example is the relationship of Hanns Eisler to his admired teacher Arnold Schoenberg. While both respected each other’s musical abilities, there seemed no way of bridging the conflict of aesthetic autonomy versus the dedication of music to support a political agenda. When early in the 1920s Schoenberg became a primary public target of anti-Semitism and the imputations against him were combined with the loathing of modernism to form the phrase of ‘musical Bolshevism’, he was forced to act in political terms. However, the pressure of persecution and exile, with National Socialism making him Jewish descent a political issue, did not make him a political activist but instead brought about his return to religion. When György Ligeti, a political refugee himself, held a public lecture On Music and Politics in 1978 it was this enforced mensuration of music by ideological standards which he refused when defending artistic autonomy: ‘I think it’s completely irrelevant to speak about the political progressivity or reactionary position of New Music. It is not progressive in a political sense nor is it regressive, just as mathematics is neither progressive nor regressive. It is of a region which lies elsewhere.’

We know of many artists who – for different reasons – collaborated or at least tried to arrange themselves with authoritarian regimes. It is impossible to avoid politics in a dictatorship, especially when trying to maintain an artistic career which involves the public or when the safety of one’s own life, of family and friends are concerned. Nevertheless, a difference can be made between reluctant and willing supporters. As different and singular the examples of Richard Strauss and Dmitri Shostakovich may seem, as similar is the ongoing question of how to deal with the political aspects in the works they wrote under ideological premises. We can only guess how irritating and provoking it must have been to anybody familiar with the history of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony when Valeri Gergijev conducted the piece at a ‘concert of the winners’ held in the Russian occupied part of Georgia in 2008, a piece composed in 1941 as a desperate effort to support Leningrad’s resistance against Wehrmacht now turned into a battle hymn more than seventy years later to celebrate Vladimir Putin’s imperialist aggression. Let me refer once again to Ligeti when he disagreed furiously with such ideological contamination of cultural heritage: ‘It is equally true that music in itself does not oppress; neither is it democratic nor anti-democratic. To be sure, certain definite injustices are subject to political criticism in their relation to musical society. But please leave music itself out of it!’

"Music has always been an instrument for political statements. "
Michael Custodis

Politics in Music

Before finishing my remarks let me add one more aspect to our matter. Obviously, music has always been an instrument for political statements. This becomes evident as soon as we broaden our view from works obliged to aesthetic autonomy to other kinds of music, especially popular music and when lyrics are involved. Here we could begin another rereading of musical history as far as preserved sources can guide us backwards in time, for example when Chinese emperors of the Hsia Dynasty 2000 years B.C. sent officers of the court to record the songs of masons building the Great Wall as a rudimentary opinion poll, or – as David King Dunaway puts it: ‘Ever since the blast of Joshua’s trumpets, political movements have turned to music in the service of their campaigns and causes.’

As easy as it seemed for me to refer to solid historical facts while trying to speak about ‘music’ and ‘politics’ as difficult it does get when we try to find appropriate measures for our own times. Democracy taught us to respect different opinions especially if we disagree. But how do we interact with people who turn the benefits of democracy against it and abuse the freedom of speech to undermine and even destroy the fundaments of common, democratic values? And how, for example, do we treat artists representing undemocratic regimes in international competitions? Was it appropriate and just to exclude the Russian delegation from the European Song Contest, similar to boycotts for Olympic and Football competitions? Or is it a symptom of a new cancel culture as conservative critics argue who condemn political, ethnic and sexual diversity as a sign of weakness and political correctness? How do we maintain the diplomatic quality of music as a means of bringing people together who are not on speaking terms? And was it a sign of artistic quality or mainly of political solidarity that a Ukrainian folk-Hip Hop-collective could win in Turin, as a public European response by the audience voters to the call of Oleh, the singer of the Kalush Orchestra ‘I ask all of you, help Ukraine’? The ESC-Jury’s favourite musician had been Sam Ryder, representing Great Britain, the land of Pop and Brexit (if you may excuse my adaptation of Elgar’s famous march Land of Hope and Glory). The show for the grand finale opened with a scene from the Piazza San Carlo showing a political statement from the largest band of the world, the Rockin’ 1000 performing John Lennon’s hymn Give Peace a Chance. This performance was joined by the singing crowd in the venue where numerous rainbow flags were visible as well (and we remember from the European Football Championship last year that symbols of diversity and equality like the rainbow colours had enough potential for a respectable controversy between the public and UEFA officials).

One lesson to be learned from German history is that elite groups stick together and do not share their history and privileges voluntarily when a shift of political circumstances demands a more egalitarian participation of power and resources. After 1945 German musicologists, artists and other stakeholders in the field of music kept up a syndicate of active silence as long as possible. It was up to solitary outsiders like Jewish survivor Joseph Wulf in the 1960s and journalist Fred K. Prieberg in the 1980s to present facts, names and numbers that had been kept out meticulously of official historiography concerning the years of National Socialism.

Another simple but essential insight is that the difficulty to handle controversial musical issues in times of political crisis is not a recent phenomenon but a result of democratic discourse in general. When British troops had been fighting in Northern France for many months and German submarines had attacked the British civil and military fleet, the British parliament discussed on July 28th 1915 how it could be tolerated that Sir Henry Wood had conducted a series of concerts entirely composed of German music. Thirty-six years later, on July 3rd 1941, the British Parliament witnessed a similar debate this time discussing the habit in many British shelters to listen to German broadcasts of classical music while Hitler’s bombs were falling on England. British radio entrepreneur and Conservative politician Leonard Plugge put the heated debate in a nutshell: ‘I have with my own eyes seen people in England, waiting in a shelter, hearing the bombs fall, and listening to the German transmissions and saying, Well, whatever one levels against the Germans, they are beautiful musicians. They do play beautiful things.

A glance at historic resistance movements shows how long it took to establish, consolidate and coordinate collective action. Furthermore, keeping up a common spirit and maintaining the dream of victory over a long period of time proved to be very difficult. Even more problematic were the preparations for the return to normality: What means should be taken to transform a wartime society into a peaceful social order? What should happen after years of suppression, deprivation and perseverance when the goal is reached and hopefully liberty, freedom and independence regained? Preparations for this moment apply primarily to political matters and often do not meet the needs and routines of artists. Most debates with a strong public impact do not apply to music. And yet, music is linked closely to memory culture and the reflection on traumatic experiences. So, this is something we should all be aware of and hope for in the cases of Ukraine and other areas of war, genocide, conflict and devastation: to prepare and expand settings, funding, skills, awareness and networks in order to support the return of peace, justice, and equality.

But what about our individual perception of music? Did the current war against the Ukraine change our own attitudes towards the relations of music and politics – and if so, how? I believe we are all looking forward to a wonderful concert tonight maybe experiencing the famous Elbphilharmonie for the first time (as I am), listening to Andris Nelsons conducting the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. The program will be dedicated entirely to Richard Strauss, and besides the Sinfonisches Zwischenspiel from his opera Intermezzo (premiered in 1924), his symphonic poems Till Eulenspiegel (1895) and Tod und Verklärung (1889) the program will also feature Rachel Willis-Sørensens performing his Vier letzte Lieder. They were composed in 1948 but premiered two years later on May 22rd 1950 in London’s famous Royal Albert Hall, featuring Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Kirsten Flagstad with the vocal part.

As long as we can agree to appreciate the music of Richard Strauss there will be no doubt that these songs are praised rightly as part of his artistic legacy just as his Metamorphosen which he had written during the last days of the Second World War. There has been much debate on how this music incorporates the eighty-one years old composer’s sceptical and wearily reflection of his own life and German history in general. At the time of the premiere all of the protagonists had experienced harsh public criticism concerning their involvement with National Socialism and there is an ongoing debate how much the willingness of Strauss and Furtwängler to come to terms with Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda contaminated their artistic integrity. In this context the Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad needs to be added to the list of dubious artists. Her example touches the sensitive matter of collaboration with the regime of the Norwegian National Socialist Vidkun Quisling: In 1941, one year after the German attack against Norway the world famous singer interrupted her engagement at the New York Metropolitan Opera to return to her husband Henry Johansen in Norway who was benefitting from his membership in the Norwegian Nazi party Nasjonal Samling and was making a fortune selling lumber to the German occupation forces. He was imprisoned immediately after the liberation but died in 1946 before his trial for treason had come to an end. Flagstad’s role was already the subject of an international controversy before May 1945. While politicians and artists in Norway and in exile accused her of treason and collaboration with the Germans, her supporters claimed she had been associated with the Norwegian resistance movement along with some of her relatives. Such assertions were rather common as a habit of self-defence and unproven for Flagstad. The debate was overrun by reality when she successfully revived her affiliation with the New York Met in 1949. The case of Furtwängler was similar. After three denazification trials he continued his international career in 1947.

Coming back to my initial questions if there are political arguments over-shadowing manners of musical autonomy and where to find appropriate codes of conduct in such a case, I turn them into a personal question for each of us: how far are we willing to defend our love for music or change our mind when politics get involved?

Thank you very much for your kind attention!

Professor Michael Custodis gave the speech at the "Pre-Conference Day" of the annual conference of the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC) on 21 May 2022 at the Hamburg University of Music and Dance. The German Music Information Centre (miz) reproduces the speech manuscript unabridged. All points of view expressed therein correspond exclusively to those of the author. For the time being, the lecture is only available in English; a German translation will follow.


  1. Zitiert nach dem Artikel der Deutschen Welle Die umstrittene Operndiva: Anna Netrebkos Comeback, 31. August 2022. Online unter: https://www.dw.com/de/die-umstrittene-operndiva-anna-netrebkos-comeback/a-62965760 (Zugriff: 13. September 2022).
  2. Vgl. für den übergeordneten Kontext der Debatte Ian Parsons, Dissonant Terror. Stockhausen’s Lucifer and the Art of 9/11, in: Journal of Musicological Research 39/2020, Nr. 1, S. 1-23. Online unter: https://doi.org/10.1080/01411896.2020.1714442 sowie Michael Custodis: Die soziale Isolation der neuen Musik. Zum Kölner Musikleben nach 1945, Stuttgart 2004, S. 196-202.
  3. Vgl. als aktuellsten Überblicksbeitrag zu dieser jahrzehntealten Debatte Furtwänglers Sendung. Essays zum Ethos des deutschen Kapellmeisters, hrsg. v. Albrecht Riethmüller und Gregor Herzfeld, Stuttgart 2020.
  4. Vgl. hierzu von Michael Custodis: Music and Resistance. Cultural Defense During the German Occupation of Norway, 1940-45, Münster 2021 [= Münsteraner Schriften zur zeitgenössischen Musik 6], S. 202-209. Online unter: https://musicandresistance.net/publications/music-and-resistance.
  5. Anastasios Giannarás, Das Wachthaus im Bezirk der Musen. Zum Verhältnis von Musik und Politik bei Platon, in: Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 32/1975, Nr. 3, S. 165-183.
  6. György Ligeti, On Music and Politics, in: Perspectives of New Music, 16/1978, Nr. 2, S. 19-24.
  7. Ebd.
  8. David King Dunaway, Music and Politics in the United States, in: Folk Music Journal 5/1987, Nr. 3, S. 268-294.
  9. Vgl. die Aufzeichnung der Debatte im Parlament des Vereinigten Königreichs am 3. Juli 1941. Online unter: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1941-07-03/debates/759fa6c9-8dcc-47a3-bc6d-77c7d32d464d/Supply?highlight=music#contribution-f90a7b09-7c56-424d-bdda-505c70197be4 (Zugriff: 30. Mai 2022).

About the author

Michael Custodis is Professor of Contemporary Music and Systematic Musicology at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster.
Foto: Portrait Michael Custodis