Slate has a piece up on the Asian-ization of Western classical music. It’s more historically informed than you might think for a Slate piece, although it seems to be lurking in the author’s mind that Classical Music is a universal component of Western Culture. In fact a lot of it was created for the aristocracy, and there was only a fairly brief period1 when major cities were supposed to have a symphony orchestra supported by bourgeois ticket-buyers. Paarlberg points out that Jews dominated violin performance for years, so its not surprising that the torch is being passed to a new subgroup.
I mostly wanted to mention this as a great way to plug Richard Kraus’s fine book Pianos and Politics in China: Middle-Class Ambitions and the Struggle over Western Music in China. Kraus deals with the role of Western music in defining (and denouncing) China’s new middle class. Although other forms of Western music were important in creating modernity in Asia ‘classical’ music was an important class signal, just as it was in the West. Under the Communists the music of the urban elite had to be swept away along with the elite.
This Cultural Revolution piano announces that Art should serve the workers, peasants, and soldiers, but its still a piano.2 During the CR, of course, any sort of Western music was problematic. The big bold quote from Chairman Mao saved this piano from being smashed, but lots of its brethren. were not so lucky.
This dates from the early 80’s I think,3 and is one of the oddest Chinese propaganda posters I have ever seen. Yes, things changes fast during the Reform era, but a housewife whose kid is learning the violin? Less then a decade after the fall of the Gang of Four? The class symbolism of music may have made the quickest comeback of anything during the reforms. And apparently, its one thing that it pretty similar in Asia and among Asian Americans.
o.k. a century or so ↩
This actually made me wonder how ‘classical’ a piano would have been in China, as for me a piano would not necessarily bring up thoughts of a classical orchestra. ↩
via Landesberger ↩
In the category of less sound analyses of this phenomenon, Amy Chua’s book is a rather self-indulgent and less than self-reflective example of the obsession with classical music training. We would want to know something also about colonialism of a particular period and how the aristocratic norms of that era came to inform the middle class aspirations of later generations. Pierre Bourdieu is very informative about the universalization of particular class tastes. Thanks for the tip on Kraus’s book.
Reminds me of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress where the youth sent down during the Cultural Revolution convince the locals that’s it’s great to play a Mozart sonata by telling them that it’s actually “Mozart is Thinking Of Chairman Mao.”