Reactionary Music of the 20th Century
I’m sick of politics, in theory, and in practice, for the moment. So I want to share with you some music and some thoughts on it this weekend. The composers and pieces I will present here have something in common: they have been described, for better or (more often) for worse as “reactionary” in both form and content. And that is why I love them. While incorporating to some unavoidable extent the styles of the times in which they lived, these composers also remained committed to styles and themes that constantly evoked earlier eras of music and society. In listening to them, I can indulge in what I hope is a healthy way my romanticist tendencies without abandoning a realistic approach to the modern world and it’s problems.
1. Aram Khachaturian
Khachaturian, along with Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, was regarded as one of the three giants of Soviet music. They shared more in common than that, however: they were forced by Stalin’s lackey Andrei Zhdanov to publicly apologize for their “formalism” and “anti-popular” style of music in 1948.
I have always preferred Khachaturian to the other two “giants” for the exotic folk themes that he invoked in his music, drawing on the traditions of his native Armenia.
I think my favorite piece by Khachaturian is the adagio to his ballet Spartacus, which was unsurprisingly written some years after the Zhdanov condemnation in what had to be an attempt to work “popular” themes into his music. Official Marxist-Leninist ideology smiles upon any historical theme in which the progressive forces rise up against the reactionary regime. In spite of the ideological box in which he was forced to work, this piece evokes moods and feelings that no party bureaucrat could understand.
2. Joaquin Rodrigo
Rodrigo has been one of my favorite composers for quite some time. Rodrigo’s music captures the glory of Spain at its historical height, incorporating into all of his most well-known works the guitar, something you don’t hear in too many of the great composer’s works. Much of the music has a distinctly medieval flavor, at least to my ears.
Living and working under the rule of Francisco Franco, it isn’t surprising that his music was incredibly popular at the time, given the reactionary nature of the regime. Unlike the Soviet composers, there’s no hint that Rodrigo’s compositions were forced by the government.
His most well-known piece is the adagio of his Concierto de Aranjuez, which he and his wife declared “was written as a response to the miscarriage of their first child.” It also perfectly represents the medieval-Spanish aesthetic, which along with the personal element makes it one of my favorite pieces of music. It also contributes to my Catholic fascist aesthetic, of course
3. Sergei Rachmaninoff
What can I say about Rachmaninoff? He is my favorite composer of all-time, no matter how much my second and third favorites rotate. And he is the most consciously and unapologetically personal and reactionary, so much so that he was reviled by the critics of his day, and condemned in absentia in the Soviet Union, even as he enjoyed popularity with audiences.
There is no doubt that Rachmanioff’s music is as backward looking as the man himself was, upon a Russia he was forced to flee, and in spite of his rejection of religion, upon a time in which spiritual values reigned. Rachmaninoff’s music is also deeply personal, reflective of a sensitive and tormented soul that hasn’t given into the aesthetics of chaos, disorder, and downright ugliness that consumed so much of the world of art in the post-modern age.
It is hard for me to choose a favorite piece. For those who haven’t heard his music, I think his second piano concerto is a great introduction to it. Though I think his second symphony is my favorite, it requires patience and attention to fully appreciate.