Skip to content

Good Letters

mozartLast December, I wrote a speculative piece for First Things Online, regarding the upcoming visit of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to the People’s Republic of North Korea. I was responding to a Wall Street Journal op-ed by the critic Terry Teachout, who thought that such a visit would constitute a serenade for Kim Jong-Il, and a betrayal to that tyrant’s victims.

I suggested that perhaps there is another way to look at it, and that, since the visit was already confirmed, it might be useful to speculate on the effect that Dvorak’s music could have on the psyche of a dictator. (The piece met some criticism in the First Things blog here, and a qualified defense here.)

The concert, by all accounts, went smoothly. Pleasantries were exchanged, and the guests at the concert enjoyed the Dvorak and “An American In Paris.” Condoleeza Rice, however, was more tepid in her judgment: “I don’t think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea,” she said. The assistant concert master, Michelle Kim, whose parents had once fled from North Korea, sounded humble yet hopeful: “This might not solve the problems with the U.S. politically but it will be in their hearts as something to remember.” Lorin Maazel, the conductor of the orchestra, voiced the key hope: “It is my hope that our presence here will be significant to the people who will not be able to attend the concert.” That is highly unlikely, as Teachout pointed out in a follow-up piece to his previous op-ed.

My point, however, is this: leaving aside the question of whether or not it was diplomatically useful or even morally justified to accept North Korea’s invitation in the first place, the concert itself unleashed a new and unpredictable element in the stifling totalitarian atmosphere of Pyongyang—and its effects on the party members listening is undetectable by the standard measures of politics and diplomacy.

How odd, then, to come across this story: “Chinese orchestra performs for Pope Benedict at Vatican“—almost the inverse of the New York Philharmonic’s visit. Perhaps the fact that the Chinese orchestra has been playing Mozart and the fact that freedom for the Falun Gong, Tibetans, and secret Christians in China is still not foreseeable is a blow the arguments I put forward in my North Korea piece. Perhaps. And perhaps one should listen to the words of the orchestra’s conductor with more suspicion:

“Music is beyond any religion, culture, language, and I would say music is the language of God because language is understanding each other,” the conductor told The Associated Press in an interview before the evening concert in the Paul VI auditorium.

He said he wanted to send a message to the Chinese people about the value of understanding Western culture—and added: “especially I hope the whole world can also understand us.”

As for His Holiness, Pope Benedict “called it a ‘truly unique event’ and offered a ‘thank you’ in Chinese at the end of the hour-long concert.” The pope is a Mozart fan, but he’s also dealing with a lot of issues involving the Catholic Church in China. I am not Vaticanologist and I won’t try to analyze his remarks or the diplomatic significance of the event itself. Nor can I say anything about the Chinese musicians, or their conductor. But I still maintain that there is a certain inviolability to the work of art, a dignity to it that no one can take away. And that dignity is pregnant with possibility and power. Even if the Chinese government is using its orchestra for propaganda purposes, instrumentalizing an institution that should be an end in itself, the question to ask now is: Did the pope enjoy the music anyway?

Because if he did, then the Chinese musicians might have learned something from him. Who hasn’t looked at the beauty of one’s own home or city in a different way after the arrival of a visitor, who is looking that the place for the first time? In a similar way, Pope Benedict, by his mere enthusiasm and love for Mozart, might have given the musicians some inkling as to why it is that the Requiem is so beautiful. And this inkling can be the starting point for something greater.

UPDATE: Rome-based reporter Irene Lagan has posted some of Pope Benedict’s words to the Chinese orchestra: “Music, and art in general, can serve as a privileged instrument for encounter and reciprocal knowledge and esteem between different populations and cultures; a means attainable by all for valuing the universal language of art. There is another aspect that I wish to emphasize. I note with pleasure the interest shown by your orchestra and choir in European religious music. This shows that it is possible, in different cultural settings, to enjoy and appreciate sublime manifestations of the spirit such as Mozart’s Requiem which we have just heard, precisely because music expresses universal human sentiments, including the religious sentiment, which transcends the boundaries of every individual culture.”


Image depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

+ Click here to make a donation.

+ Click here to subscribe to Image.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

If you like Image, you’ll love ImageUpdate.

Subscribe to our free newsletter here: