Category Archives: Various

Karl Marx on music: Gluck, Mozart, and the division of labor

It was 200 years ago today when Henriette Pressburg, a Jewish woman from a well-to-do family that would later found Philips Electronics, and Heinrich Marx, distant cousin of German Romantic poet Heinrich Heine, welcomed their third child. His name was Karl, and he would soon become one of the most influential thinkers human history has ever known.

So influential, in fact, that his figure features in the iconic album cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – there he is, squeezed in between American comic actor Oliver Hardy and English writer H. G. Wells (the latter hailed as the “Shakespeare of science fiction”). And since, to quote the German philosopher himself, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”, it is quite fitting that Marx would find his place between a comedian and a tragedian of sorts.

But, cover art and quips aside, what kind of views did Karl Marx have with regards to music?

To begin with, Marx was clearly less versed in the inner workings of music than his close collaborator Friedrich Engels, who had studied harmony and even tried his hand at composing during his youth (albeit with no great results). Moreover, Marx’s writings on music are scarce, although some of the relevant fragments can help in giving us a clearer idea as to his attitude and thoughts on the subject.

An early example can be found in one of his unpublished poems, which Marx wrote as a teenager and dedicated to his father. In the poem, inspired by Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Armide and titled Sir (G)luck’s Armide, young Marx recounts how he ostensibly “sat, lost in the music’s spell.”

In his later work, Marx mostly refers to music in the wider context of his economic and sociopolitical analysis. In the economic and philosophical manuscripts written in Paris (1844-45), for example, he refers to “a musical ear” in relation to the cultivation of human senses and the richness of human sensibility.

Furthermore, it appears that Marx nurtured a genuine appreciation for the act of composing, which he considered a serious and laborious activity. In the Grundrisse (1857-58), he refers to musical composition as an example of free, unalienated  labor:

Really free labor, the composing [of music] for example, is at the same time damned serious and demands the greatest effort.  The labor concerned with material production can only have this character if (1) it is of a social nature and (2) it has a scientific character and at the same time is general work, i.e. if it becomes the activity of a subject controlling all the forces of nature in the production process.

Next to such “organic” uses of musical examples, Marx would also occasionally comment on the musical life of his time. In a letter to Engels from Karlsbad in 1876, he makes a sardonic allusion to Wagner: “Everything here is ‘the Future’ since the rumbling of ‘the music of the future’ in Bayreuth.”

One of the most characteristic remarks by Marx in relation to music comes from an account by Wilhelm Liebknecht, principal founder of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and lifelong friend of Marx. In the course of a pub crawl or Bierreise in April 1854, during his stay in London, Marx appears to have reacted to the snobbish comments by some Englishmen with an outburst of musical-nationalist pride. In Liebknecht’s own words:

Marx launched into an enthusiastic eulogy on German science and music — no other country, he said, would have been capable of producing such masters of music as Beethoven, Mozart, Händel and Haydn, and the Englishmen who had no music were in reality far below the Germans who had been prevented hitherto only by the miserable political and economical conditions from accomplishing any great practical work, but who would yet outclass all other nations. (Wilhelm Liebknecht, Karl Marx zum Gedächtnis, Nuremberg, 1896)

28 Dean Street, London. Karl Marx lived there in the 1850s with his family in dire conditions.

Marx had moved to London in 1849 and ended up staying there until the end of his life. During the first half of the 1850s, he lived with his family on 28 Dean Street under very difficult conditions. Incidentally, an 8-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had given a recital at number 21 of that very same street in 1764 during one of his long concert tours as child prodigy.

In The German Ideology (1845-46), Marx had mentioned Mozart in response to Max Stirner’s argument that no one can compose music on behalf of someone else. “It was not Mozart himself”, Marx writes, “but someone else who composed the greater part of Mozart’s Requiem and finished it”. Although this might sound quite unflattering for the Viennese composer, Marx was basically trying to show (employing, along with Mozart, the example of High Renaissance master painter Raphael) that whether an individual artist succeeds in developing his talent “depends wholly on demand, which in turn depends on the division of labor and the conditions of human culture resulting from it”.

Meanwhile, Mozart’s remains have been resting inside a common unmarked grave at the St. Marx Cemetery of Vienna. History, it seems, is not only tragic or comical, but also ironic.

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Rain, tears and dreams: Sounds from May 1968

Rain and tear(gase)s

Exactly 50 years ago, in May 1968, promising Greek musicians Vangelis Papathanassiou, Demis Roussos and Lucas Sideras find themselves in Paris, following a failed attempt to relocate to London. There, caught up in the whirlwind of student riots and amid general unrest in the French capital, the group is christened Aphrodite’s Child and releases the single Rain and Tears.

A lyrical composition based on Pachelbel’s Canon in D major, the song became an immediate hit and reached No. 1 in the French charts, thus setting the stage for the band’s hugely successful yet short career (their final album and acclaimed psychedelic masterpiece 666 would be released in 1972).

An unlikely soundtrack to the May 1968 events in France, Rain and Tears became widely popular among those fighting and singing out on the streets of Paris, despite its English and seemingly non-political lyrics. According to Demis Roussos, however, its very title was a veiled reference to the ongoing revolt, with “rain” standing for the May rainfalls in Paris and “tears” alluding to the tear gases thrown in the streets of the French capital.

A dream longer than the night

Vangelis, who would later achieve global fame with his music scores for Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner, revisited the May 1968 events a few years later in his album Fais que ton rêve soit plus long que la nuit (“Make your dream last longer than the night”, a title borrowed by one of the slogans used during the May events), recorded in 1971 and released in 1972.

Only released in France and Greece, this remarkable album (originally subtitled “Poème Symphonique”) is a two-part collage of chants, protest songs, field recordings, sound effects, instrumental passages, as well as news and conversation snippets. Centering on May 1968 and inspired by the French student riots, it can be seen as Vangelis’s personal, highly evocative interpretation and musical reflection on the events.

After all, the spirit of the French May had to do not only with politics, but also the power of imagination and creativity. In the words of prominent film director Costas Ferris, who participated in the street battles in Paris (and would later pen the lyrics for Aphrodite’s Child landmark album 666), the whole May ´68 affair “was not just about street battles, confrontation and politicization. It was poetry”.

Amsterdam’s Pianola Museum, a unique piece of musical heritage

I first discovered the Pianola Museum in Amsterdam several years ago during an adventurous museum-hoping on the annual Museum Night, when tens of the city’s museums open their doors to visitors for special late night visits.

I was immediately captivated by the museum’s special atmosphere and unique aura. Watching a performance of automatic piano inside the museum’s intimate setting, surrounded by player pianos and hundreds of collectible music rolls, was an unforgettable, magical experience.

The interior of the Pianola Museum in Amsterdam

Nestled in the scenic Jordaan quarter, the Pianola Museum has remained at its current address for 25 years now. One of Amsterdam’s smallest and most unusual museums, it boasts a collection of historic pianolas as well as more than 30.000 music rolls in its archive.

Amsterdam’s City Council is apparently planning to sell the building that houses this unique cultural institution. The museum has expressed the wish to purchase the property but, being a small non-profit organization, it cannot outbid the property developers in the open market.

The danger of the Pianola Museum being forced to close down is thus imminent. An online petition to save the museum has reached almost 20,000 signatures at the time of writing. I would urge anyone who is interested in preserving  this unique part of Amsterdam’s musical heritage to show their support and sign the petition, so that the City Council might reconsider its decision and give the museum a chance to keep its current home and the rest of us the opportunity to continue enjoying its musical offerings at this very special location.

Soundtrack to a revolution: Russian music in times of revolt

Drag pianos out into the streets
Drums with boat hooks from windows dash.
Smash pianos and drums to smithereens
Let there be thunder –

Vladimir Mayakovsky, ‘An Order to the Art Army’

One hundred years have passed since the October Revolution, one of the last century’s defining events with profound repercussions that can still be felt to this day. Its far-reaching social and political implications aside, the revolution also had a powerful impact on Russian culture and art. Music, in particular, would play an important role both emotionally and ideologically in this tumultuous new chapter of Russian history.

Folklore and ideology

In the decades directly preceding the revolution, the writings of thinkers like Nikolay Chernyshevsky and Leo Tolstoy had a considerable influence on the debate surrounding the meaning and purpose of art.

A Shy Peasant (1877), by Ilya Repin

According to Chernyshevsky, “the true function of art is to explain and comment on life”, an idea that lies behind many depictions of peasantry and everyday life in Russian realist art of this period.

Furthermore, the views expressed by Tolstoy in his book What is Art? (1897), wherein he stresses the moral as well as social function of art, would remain highly influential well into the Soviet years. For Tolstoy, art is not about emotionalism, pleasure or entertainment; it is, rather, “a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.”

Despite Tolstoy’s stated preference for the simplicity and sincerity of folk music, he was far from indifferent or knowledgeable regarding more refined forms. He admired Chopin and also liked listening to Mozart and Haydn. His more ambivalent relationship with Beethoven is reflected in some of his writings, such as his famous novella The Kreutzer Sonata (named after Beethoven’s violin sonata of the same name).

An amateur pianist himself, Tolstoy also knew personally several distinguished musicians who at times visited and played for him, including seminal figures of Russian classical music such as Anton Rubinstein, Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Tolstoy playing

Leo Tolstoy at the piano

Meanwhile, the late 19th century saw the rise of folk music ensembles. Folk choirs, in particular, were extremely popular and song was thus turned into a powerful ideological force. Favorites included several revolutionary songs, and a musical collection of Russian Revolutionary Songs was even printed in Berlin prior to 1905. In Soviet times, the distinction between folk and art music would play a crucial role, along with the demarcation of “the people’s” or “proletarian” art as opposed to “bourgeois” and “formalist” tendencies.

“Art belongs to the people”

Although Lenin considered himself a “barbarian” with regards to new tendencies in art, he took a keen interest in cultural affairs. He admired much of Beethoven’s music, as well as pieces by Chopin, Bizet, Gounod, and Tchaikovsky.

In a characteristic incident related by Maxim Gorky (which was dramatized for Soviet television in the 1960s), the famous writer records Lenin’s reaction after listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata: “I know the Appassionata inside out and yet I am willing to listen to it every day. It is wonderful, ethereal music. On hearing it I proudly, maybe somewhat naively, think: See! people are able to produce such marvels!”

According to Gorky, however, Lenin continued on a somewhat darker tone: “But I cannot listen to music too often, it affects one’s nerves, makes one want to say kind, stupid things and stroke the heads of those who, living in such a foul hell, can create such beauty. Nowadays if one strokes someone’s head, he’ll get his hand bitten off! Better to beat the person unmercifully over the head, although ideally we oppose the use of force in human relations. Hm, hm, our task is infernally hard!”

Above all, Lenin was concerned with the ideological and educational aspects of art. As he put it: “Art belongs to the people. It must penetrate with its deepest roots into the very midst of the broad working masses. It must unite the feeling, thought and will of these masses, must elevate them. It must awaken the artists among them and stimulate them.”

Following the October Revolution of 1917, Lenin appointed Anatoly Lunacharsky as People’s Commissariat for Education, responsible for cultural and educational affairs. An art connoisseur and prolific critic, Lunacharsky shared Lenin’s admiration for Beethoven. Stressing the revolutionary and heroic aspects of Beethoven’s music and -with the notable exception of the 9th Symphony- centering on the works of his middle period (thus excluding the more “difficult” late works), this led to the appropriation and glorification of the German composer as one of the pillars of Soviet musical culture.

The rise of the avant-garde

The period following the revolution was an extraordinary one for Russian culture. It was during this time that the groundbreaking Russian avant-garde would reach both its creative peak and widest appeal. While many musicians left Russia after the revolution (including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Vladimir Horowitz, Feodor Chaliapin, and Jascha Heifetz) or were already working abroad (like Igor Stravinsky),  a new wave of avant-garde composers was emerging, mirroring the revolutionary developments in Russian art and literature as expressed in the works of Kandinsky, Goncharova, Rodchenko, Malevich, Mayakovsky, Blok and many others.

Still Life with Instruments (1916), by Lyubov Popova

A major influence among many of these upcoming composers was Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915), whose highly innovative and dissonant music featured overtones of mysticism and theosophy. Some of the composers who followed in Scriabin’s footsteps include Nikolai Roslavets (sometimes referred to as “the Russian Schoenberg”), Samuil Feinberg, Sergei Protopopov, and Alexander Mosolov.

Radical political developments notwithstanding, 1917 was a very productive year for the young Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), who was fast becoming one of the era’s major composers. In that same year, he completed his “Classical” Symphony, the Third and Fourth Piano Sonatas, as well as the Visions Fugitives for piano. Prokofiev, who left Russia in 1918 with the blessings of Lunacharsky, would eventually return to USSR 18 years later (he died on 5 March 1953, the same day as Joseph Stalin).

A champion of musical modernism and known as “the musical conscience of Moscow”, Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950) would become a prominent figure in Soviet musical life in the 1920s and the 1930s. The son of an ex-Tsarist general who was murdered by Red Army soldiers, Myaskovsky himself served in the Red Army from 1917 to 1921 and was inspired by the revolutionary events for his Sixth Symphony (composed during 1921–1923), the only choral symphony and the longest of his 27 symphonies. The work’s finale contains two French revolutionary songs (La carmagnole and Ah ça ira), along with the Dies Irae and a Russian Orthodox burial hymn on the parting of body and soul.

Technology and experimentation

Next to the earth-shattering sociopolitical developments, the revolution taking place in the arts often employed the use of newly developed technology. In October 1920, Russian physicist Léon Theremin invented the first mass-produced musical electronic instrument, the theremin (also known as termenvox). Theremin demonstrated his invention to Lenin, who was impressed and sent Theremin across the country in order to display this new fascinating instrument (and promote the progress of electrification which was under way in Russia).

In 1922, the Persimfans conductorless orchestra was founded in Moscow by violinist Lev Zeitlin.  A bold experiment that aspired to apply egalitarian concepts to music performance, Persimfans operated for ten years and, according to Prokofiev, “coped splendidly with difficult programs and accompanied soloists as competently as any conducted orchestra”.

A sketch depicting the Persimfans conductorless orchestra with its cyclical sitting arrangement

The orchestra, which performed on stage in a circle so that each musician was visible to the rest of the group, achieved worldwide acclaim during the 1920s. As historian Richard Stites put it: “Persimfans and its seventy musicians was a Utopia in miniature, a tiny republic, and a model workshop for the communist future. Like many practicing Utopias of the 1920s, it was an island in the midst of persistent inequality, a laboratory of communism, a beacon of early idealism, an inspiration for the future, and a graphic demonstration of how egalitarian mechanisms could actually work if given the opportunity.”

Shostakovich, Stalin and the whisper of history

Throughout the 1920s, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) rose to prominence as the indisputable star among the younger generation of Soviet composers. At the age of 18 he had completed his First Symphony, which became hugely successful. His Second Symphony, subtitled To October and written in 1927 as a commission for the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution, was a patriotic -yet experimental- piece with a pro-Soviet choral finale that praised Lenin and the revolution. Many years later, Shostakovich would revisit the revolutionary events in his Twelfth Symphony (subtitled The Year 1917).

Following the tightening of control regarding cultural matters and the official endorsement of “socialist realism” in the early 1930s, Russian art would enter a long and troubled new era as the revolutionary ideals would be increasingly left behind. Perhaps more than any other, the case of Shostakovich represents the complicated and problematic relationship between individual creative freedom and official state censorship that would develop under Stalin’s rule (and described brilliantly in Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time).

Today, much of Shostakovich’s music remains extremely popular, his oeuvre representing a whisper of Soviet history that time has bestowed upon all those eager to listen. As Barnes puts it in his novel:

“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”

Cannibalism, alchemy, and flying saucers: The ’70s Brazilian music scene

I recently had the good fortune to indulge myself in 1970s Brazilian music, after a small treasure ended up in my home: a box full of vinyl records with the very best of the Brazilian music scene of the time, featuring an explosive mix of samba, bossa nova, folk, soul, funk, psychedelia, and experimental rock.

Listening to these records one after another, I started putting together the pieces of a scene incredibly rich and colorful, encompassing artists so diverse and yet characteristically Brazilian as Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, seminal composers João Gilberto and Tom Jobim, influential poet and lyricist Vinícius de Moraes, as well as gifted guitarists and songwriters such as Luiz Bonfá, Toquinho, and Baden Powell.

A true gem I was delighted to discover was Tecnicolor (1970), an album originally intended to serve as the introduction of the legendary psych-rock group Os Mutantes to the English-speaking world. However, the tapes were lost and the album was only released in 2000 (with artwork by Sean Lennon). It is an absolutely thrilling record, showcasing the group’s talent and creative blend of disparate influences – a signature trait of the Tropicália movement known as antropofagia: a sort of “cultural cannibalism” aspiring to bring together different – often contrasting – elements in order to form a new synthesis.

Other records that left a deep impression on me included the brilliant self-titled debut album by glam rockers Secos & Molhados (released in 1973), as well as the fusion masterpiece Acabou Chorare (1972) by the psych-folk group Novos Baianos (voted first in the 100 Greatest Brazilian Music Records list published by Rolling Stone in October 2007).

Furthermore, I was fascinated by the transcendental dimension of certain seminal works of the era, such as Jorge Ben’s A Tábua de Esmeralda (1974), a unique album that illustrates Ben’s interest in theosophy, mysticism, and alchemy. Another example is Tim Maia’s Racional, Vols. 1 & 2 (1975-76), two albums that were recorded when Maia read the book Universe in Disenchantment and decided to convert to the cult of Rational Culture, spending a lot of his time watching the sky for extraterrestrials and flying saucers.

Although in the end Maia abandoned the cult and went back to his previous lifestyle, his fascinating excursion into Rational Culture provided the inspiration for these incredible soul-funk albums, which, along with the music of the tropicalistas and several subsequent artists and songwriters, became part of the ever vibrant, groovy, and at times transcendental, Brazilian music scene.

Defending an identity: An interview with Algerian guitar legend Lotfi Attar

Founding member of the celebrated Algerian band Raïna Raï back in the 1980s, guitarist and composer Lotfi Attar has acquired a somewhat legendary status in Algerian music circles. A multifaceted artist, Attar has done much to revolutionize the folk genre known as raï, extending its musical vocabulary as well as its audience.

Moreover, Attar boasts a broader understanding of North African music and culture, bringing together elements from various regions and experimenting with different styles. Apart from a unique and innovative musician, he is also a man with a deep passion and love for his country and its culture.

I recently had the opportunity to ask him some questions about his music, his development as a guitarist, and his overall career so far (his answers have been translated from French):

When did you first get seriously involved with music?

My brother Kamel also played the guitar. I started playing in 1962 when I was 10 years old, and in 1969 I joined the group Les Aigles Noirs playing western pop music and performing at parties and weddings. This type of music, however, was not very popular in the smaller villages.

Who are the musicians who had the biggest influence on you?

First of all, The Shadows and their distinctive way of guitar playing, but also American jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, Brazilian bossa nova composer Sergio Mendes, The Beatles, Carlos Santana with his song Jingo… And then everything my older brothers would listen to. I particularly like the sound of the Gibson and Fender guitars as played by The Shadows or Jimi Hendrix. The first guitar I bought was a Fender Duo-Sonic Mustang.

Apart from guitar players like Hendrix and Santana, when I was a teenager I would also listen to classical composers such as Strauss or Beethoven, and even played some pieces by Mozart.

Algerian guitarist Lotfi Attar / Photo: Nadjib Bouznad

What do you consider the most important moments in you career so far?

First of all, the formation of Raïna Raï in 1980 and the release of the album Hagda (1983), which included the song Ya Zina [the group’s biggest success]. Then, the formation of Amarna in the mid-1980s. For the group’s first album I composed the music while Hamida [Lotfi’s wife] wrote the lyrics in the form of lyric poetry. The group’s vocalist was Djillali Rezkallah [better known as Djillali Amarna], a singer with a beautiful voice coming from a rural vocal culture. I tried to create harmonies to accompany the vocal melodies using instruments like bass guitar, drums, and saxophone [the work stands out for its habitual use of unison, and includes the hit song Khalouni Nabki].

In more recent years, I have developed the “Goumb-Guits” style, where I sing a melody and try to approximate the sound of the gumbri [traditional 3-stringed instrument, also known as sintir] with my guitar. The Tuareg people have their proper style, I only adjust and transform it. So in the Goumb-Guits style, we find a mix of modern instruments (drums, bass guitar, piano, electric guitar) and traditional percussion instruments (karkabous, kallouz, guellal).

What have been your latest projects?

I try to evolve in the domain of musical research and bring forth elements from other world cultures that are often not valued, like Asian music for instance, through the use of the guitar. As I said, I have developed the Goumb-Guits style, but I am not limited to that. I also try to play in other styles such as Orient-Guits, Andaluz-Guits, Alaoui-Guits, and Tergui-Guits. I would also like to work with a European pianist, as I am curious to see how he or she would adapt to my style.

How would you describe your way of playing?

I don’t know… It’s natural. I am defending an identity. I am trying to be different from other guitarists. I would say mostly “Algerian.”

In what ways has Algerian music influenced you?

The Algerian musical influence on my style can be seen in the use of traditional instruments such as the reed flute, the ghaita [North African double reed instrument also known as rhaita], and percussion instruments like the bendir, the gallal, and the karkabous. I have also been influenced by the west-Algerian rural folklore we call trab [the word means “soil”], the alaoui style in my rock playing, as well as the rhythm of saf [a women’s dance], the diwan [similar to gospel], and the tergui [Touareg music related to the blues].

I chose to stay in my native Sidi Bel Abbès in Algeria in order to defend the Algerian identity and try to inspire the future generations. What is more, Algeria inspires me; I cannot see myself living in another place.


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Bach Brazil Barcelona

Johann Sebastian Bach and Brazilian music have always enjoyed an intimate relationship. This is evident from the towering figure of Heitor Villa-Lobos and his magnificent Bachianas Brasileiras to subsequent Brazilian musicians (such as guitarist Baden Powell) who also found inspiration in Bach’s music and combined it with their own distinctive style.

Originally scored for soprano and an orchestra of cellos, the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 suite is probably Villa-Lobos’s best-known work. A special rendition of the suite’s famous Aria (which has been also arranged for soprano and guitar by the composer) was recently made by singer Ilona Schneider and guitarist Diego Caicedo. Based in Barcelona, the duo delivers an emotionally charged and delicate performance, which is further enhanced by the atmosphere of the  accompanying video.

In fact, Barcelona claims a very special connection to Bach. This is largely due to legendary Catalan cellist Pablo Casals: In 1890, when he was still 13 years old, Casals chanced upon a copy of Bach’s six Cello Suites in a second-hand sheet music store in Barcelona. Several years later, after having studied them laboriously, Casals would perform Bach’s suites  in public and record them between 1936 and 1939.  They have since been performed and recorded extensively, and are now considered to be among Bach’s most important works.

A highly original take on Bach’s famous Prelude from Cello Suite No.1 can be heard from Armonipiano, a duo formed by harmonicist Rodrigo G Pahlen and pianist Gilles Estoppey. Also based in Barcelona, the two musicians perform a fresh and eclectic blend of jazz, tango, and Brazilian music. And a little bit of Bach, that is.

As shown by such brilliant and novel approaches, the mix of Bach, Brazil and Barcelona makes indeed for an exciting musical cocktail: A sort of baroque-flavored caipirinha, served in the music bars of the Catalan capital.