In times of tragedy, classical music is automatically summoned for comfort. Giving succor after a terrorist attack, as Barber's Adagio for Strings did in a Paris memorial to victims of last month's terrorist attack, is unquestionably noble employment. Providing essential time and space for reflection is music's matchless way of offering thoughts and prayers. But dare we ask music for action to accompany empathy, as some have been doing from officials in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting?
This fall Siglio Press published a handsome edition of John Cage's "Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)," the first gathering of the public and poetic responses to whatever momentarily struck the composer between the years 1965 and 1982. As Cage's title (if not the diary text itself) warns, we need to be careful. Artists through history can, and indeed have, made matters worse.
Many of us know about the influence of Wagner's anti-Semitic screeds. But great composers also have made matters worse even without meaning to. An ardent champion of democracy, Beethoven was the first notable composer to take a daring public stance politically in his music. "Fidelio" and the Ninth Symphony reach ecstatic heights espousing the overthrow of tyranny in the opera and promotion of collective brotherhood in the symphony. Beethoven thought in universal terms, but that didn't stop the Nazis from trying to pervert the composer's message and use these works to stir up popular feelings of German supremacy.
Art is powerful, and all things powerful, no matter how good for us, can be dangerous. If that environmentally friendly new Tesla in the garage includes the option for "ludicrous" acceleration, you can mow down someone at 60 mph in less than three seconds after hitting the accelerator pedal. Evidence that terrorists understand — and also fear — the force of art and culture can be assumed from the Taliban's banning of music and blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, as well as the Islamic State's destruction of the Syrian historical ruins in Palmyra.
But back to Beethoven, whose symphonies were played and recorded and broadcast and streamed this season, seeming even more than usual. Early in the fall at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Gustavo Dudamel ended his cycle of Beethoven symphonies with a Ninth of tremendous intensity meant to remind players and listeners of the priorities of citizenship. The orchestra included members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.
This has not been an encouraging year for diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Venezuela. In March, President Obama declared Venezuela a threat to our national security. Venezuela's president blamed the U.S. for much of the country's economic dysfunction, which includes triple-digit inflation, shortage of basic goods and diminishment of services.
Dudamel's efforts for his country have been in his advocacy of El Sistema, the music education system that he says now reaches 700,000 children, most of them in the country's poorest communities. In an Op-Ed column in The Times, the conductor wrote that this program must transcend the politics of a divided country. But the program is funded and administered by the executive branch of an increasingly unpopular government that has been accused of human rights violations. This has made Dudamel unpopular with the government's growing opposition, which won a landslide victory in last Sunday's legislative elections.
The doctrine of El Sistema is that making music is, itself, a human right, and it's one right the country does honor. It is written into the Venezuelan constitution. But it is the making of music that Sistema preaches, not so much the significance of any specific piece, although Beethoven's Ninth is a favorite.
Dudamel's Ninth in Disney Hall didn't fix Venezuela's economy or resolve the diplomatic impasse between our two countries. Still, such commitment and care by the combined orchestras demonstrated an uncommon effort toward common purpose, an assertion we are all in this together and the humanity that we share should be where we put our attention.
That kind of joint purpose seems next to impossible in Venezuela these days (even the victorious new opposition is a collection of warring parties), and it's hardly evident in an America where disconcerting divisions have blocked us from moving forward politically or socially. Meanwhile real dialogue has become downright unfashionable given how students in universities object to the expressions of difference of opinion, and social media has the capacity to serve as an echo chamber reinforcing only what you like.
Obviously, making music cannot halt terrorism, heal the environment or solve the world's other great problems. But in its insistence on cooperation from its practitioners and demand for mindfulness from its listeners, music can help open dialogue. From the practice of listening can come a little understanding, then concern and maybe even a ping of compassion. Finally we may be ready for a discussion as a meaningful first step in actually doing something.
"Changing things radically," Cage writes at one point in his diary, "is simple." You merely change your mind. Art alone may not be up to this, but it does have a knack for opening minds, thus making them more susceptible to change.
We are, in December, more apprehensive than we were in January. Let us now wander into 2016 knowing just a little bit better that it doesn't have to be that way.