Thursday, January 27, 2005

It's Not Just a Vodka

My mention below of the Leningrad Symphony reminded me of another of my favorite World War II symphonic stories (don't we all have a few?). I don't actually know if this is true or apocryphal, as I can't remember the source, but I've carried it around for years as a secret pleasure so don't debunk it for me, thank you very much. I choose to believe.

Anyway. If you've ever heard Sibelius' gorgeous Finlandia, which you probably have even if you don't know it, you understand the type of emotional response it can stir. Sibelius composed it in 1899, and it became sort of an unofficial national anthem, representing God and country and all of that. Under Nazi occupation, symphonies in Finland were forbidden to play for fear of stirring nationalist fervor. Incidentally, this kind of control over artistic expression by an oppressing power always strikes me as particularly perceptive in its recognition of the subversive power of art, and particularly insidious (in its recognition and manipulation of same).

So, according to the story, there was a Helsinki orchestra performance at which some top Nazi officials were present. The orchestra intended to play Finlandia for the audience, but of course this was verboten. So they simply put a different name in the program, on the hunch that the Nazi officials didn't actually know the tune of the piece so much as the title, and they performed their Finlandia to the delight of the audience with Nazi officials sitting right there, happily swaying their heads to the tune. I picture the Von Trapp family performance of Edelweiss at the Salzburg music festival at the end of The Sound of Music, except with the added twist of deception. Triumph of humanity and civilization under the very thumb of brute fascism and all that. I'm just a sucker for that kind of thing.

I had hoped to put together a longer post on the relationship of art and theater and music with oppressive forces and the particular banality of the oppressors (it's completely fitting that the Nazis would not recognize the tune), and how at the same time this dissident role can cripple art even as it ennobles it... But I've got some banal tasks to take care of myself, so you're off the hook. Because Havel would have definitely made another appearance. Oh yes he would.


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