European politicians catch classical music bug

In the audience for yesterday's Bayreuth Festival performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg were German chancellor Angela Merkel and the president of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso. In the audience at the recent Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment anniversary concert in London was the new UK culture secretary James Purnell. European politicians are catching the classical music bug, as two articles from the official EU website, which I have combined below, confirm:

'Among the ranks of MEPs are two concert pianists - Lithuanian Vytautas Landsbergis (above left) and Luxembourg's Erna Hennicot-Schoepges (above right). This week we speak to them both to get their views on the relative merits of piano playing and being an MEP.

Erna Hennicot-Schoepges has been a leading politician in Luxembourg since the 1970's - mainly through her involvement in cultural policy. She has also held the post of Cultural Minister of Luxembourg. She is also - like fellow MEP Vytautas Landsbergis - a highly skilled pianist. We spoke to her about her experiences in the cultural field - both on a national level and in the European Parliament where she sits as an MEP for the European People's Party and European Democrats.

Vytautas Landsbergis shot to prominence in the late 80's as the leader of Lithuania's independence movement from Soviet rule. He was the county's first post-Soviet leader before becoming an MEP. Prior to both of these he was a concert pianist.

Are musical and political skills comparable?

- Music and politics are complementary. A piece of music obliges one to start from scratch every time. This calls for a significant amount of discipline and an attitude of humility because irrespective of the music level reached, every piece is a fresh challenge each time. Playing music requires working consistently and insistently. What is lacking in politics is certainly harmony and colours, the art of looking at details and of observation and feeling. The danger of politics lies precisely in the potential loss of one's character and the acquirement of wooden language. Citizens are horrified by these empty words which consist of speaking but saying nothing.

- Skills are mental and physical. When talking about music we usually have physical abilities and their preservation and improvement in mind. Nevertheless, mental skills like memory and ideas for performance are following the music during all the moments. One can prepare a well known repertoire for a concert without practicing for a long time - performance is more than repetition. In the European Parliament sometimes you have to prepare for the meetings when you are at the meeting. Preparation is in one's head, unless the questions discussed are completely new.

Should politicians stay out of or support the arts?

- One should not confuse culture with art. One forms part of the other but culture is profound. It differentiates us from other species and gives us especially in Europe a better knowledge of others and a predisposition to dialogue. In art politics should not interfere in the content but politics must ensure the conditions to carry it out. Negative examples of political interference in art like in Nazism and Communism are still fresh in our minds. Back then art was encouraged and financed to ensure national glory, but at the cost of interference in its contents. In the EU we are now at a crossroads. Those countries of the EU which did not experience communism knew insufficient financing and poor, unstructured social conditions for artists. In other countries which knew generous financing, artists have seen a regression in their material conditions. Freedom requires a terrible sacrifice. For liberty one has less money. Thus the Union today must arrive at a balance. The other model is that of the USA where culture is completely privatised and sponsors influence the contents

- Patronage and care about conditions of creation and expression does not necessarily mean interference. We used to live in a regime that was interfering with everything, including the art, but it met insurmountable obstacles, such as music. Just remember the party's decision on good and bad music taken during Stalinist times. It wasted time and created some rubbish. Interference with art is wrong, nevertheless if politicians care about art it does not automatically mean interference.

You personally know the price of freedom and democracy - what is your message to people who are not inclined to vote?

- Non-voting means treason towards representative democracy. It is a paradox. We're re-establishing independence through democracy and won a right not to mechanically vote, but rather choose. If people do not cherish democracy, do not want to participate in it then they can loose it. Sometimes people have to pass democracy exams and defend their elected governments using direct democracy - like in Lithuania in January 1991.

What about those who compare the European Union to the Soviet Union?

- It is hard to speak to ignorant people who confidently repeat clichés. This mental barrier can be overcome by acquainting with the facts on the spot. For example by organising visits to the EU institutions, showing how debates are conducted. Have the people forgetten about the Soviet dictatorship? The Soviet Union was no union, just a falsified Orwelian entity. There was no socialism – the state became a capitalist exploiting workers.

Aside from music, culture is of great importance to you. What do you hope to achieve in this field in the Parliament?

- In Luxembourg I was a Culture Minister - in Parliament I can speak about and say things that others cannot say because they do not know the issue in depth. My goal is to ensure that culture is admitted as a policy field in its own right. It is also a wide subject like the environment. One can speak about culture in law, industry and education. Culture is everywhere.

In your experience, how compatible are artistic and political lifestyles?

- The political world is very creative and is like art in that respect. I chose politics firstly to show that a musician can bring lots of ideas to politics. Secondly, as a woman in Luxembourg a lot remained to be done back then as is still required today in the field of male-female equality and the combination work-family today.

Finally, what is your favourite piece of music?

- A delicate question indeed...but one of my many favourites includes the Goldberg Variations of Bach.

- It is hard to name a single one. My favourite composer is M. K. Čiurlionis.'

* Biography and music samples of M. K. Čiurlionis via this path - he is a real discovery. Music really can help change the world.
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Pliable said…
Email received:

In the days of my vinyl collecting, I managed to find a recording of Landsbergis playing Ciurlionis on MELODIYA. Back in the day, when I was growing up in
Toronto (which in many ways was a better city for buying records than New York),there was a strange store in the middle of what was an Eastern European
neighborhood in the Central West end of the city. The store was called Ukraïnska Kniga, and sold all sorts of products from the country of the Glorious
Revolution. It was the closest thing we had to a GUM store, including potential spys. The Russian community was convinced the store was filled with agents. While I kind of doubted it, the one thing the store WAS filled with were MELODIYA's and MEZHDUNARODNAYA KNIGA's that was every collector's wet dream, all selling for under $5.00!

The reason I was given for such low prices was because even though the"importer" tried to bring in classical titles, nobody in the Russian community expressed any interest. He had vinyl pressings going back to the 50's, as wellas some 78's! The store finally went under in the early '90's, but the "importer" still had a garage full (i.e. Thousands)of LP's. Along comes a fellow by the name of Peter Dunn, who was the master of second hand vinyl in Toronto for many years with his Vinyl Museum stores (alas, he dissapeared as well by the year 2000. He bought up the entire garage, and was now offering the MELODIYA's for less then $4.00 each! I already had the Landsbergis, amongst other titles, but I picked up other rareities including a Moscow recital of Toronto-born Teresa Stratus, dating from July 24, 1963 (the day before I was born!, and rare performances of Bella Davidovich, Kondrashin, Oborin, Oistrakh, you name it. I stayed and from the recording of Lenin's speech "How to rid the world of Captialism for-ever", only because I had the complete speeches on CD (for historical reasons, of course).

Reading of these politicians (one should include Edward Heath) reminded me, though tangentally, of the above story and the memory of how fun it used to be to collect recordings. Downloading, while technically a cornucoppia of wonderful recordings, still has serious sound quality issues, and just does not, and will never, have the same romance and satisfaction of holding an actual sound object (bigger than an iPod) in you hand.

Just thought I'd share my whimsy

Cheer David Cavlovic
Garth Trinkl said…
Thanks for this superb post, pliable.

We heard a fine performance of Portuguese Renaissance music last night at the Freer Art Gallery in Washington by Lisbon's Vozes Alfonsinas (which is reported to be just about to release its fourth album, The Ocean of Music, on EMI).

During the brief formalities before the concert, it was mentioned that Vozes Alfonsinas (eight members and music director)had been invited to perform for the European Commission next season when Portugal assumes the revolving Presidency of that organization.

Their program: Visogothic and Mozarabic chant!

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