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Liberty and Music

NEW YORK – North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is one of the world’s most oppressive, closed, and vicious dictatorships. It is perhaps the last living example of pure totalitarianism – control of the state over every aspect of human life. Is such a place the right venue for a Western orchestra? Can one imagine the New York Philharmonic, which performed to great acclaim in Pyongyang, entertaining Stalin or Hitler?

All totalitarian systems have one thing in common: by crushing all forms of political expression except adulation of the regime, they make everything political. There is no such thing in North Korea as non-political sports or culture. So there is no question that the invitation to the New York Philharmonic was meant to burnish the prestige of a regime, ruled by The Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il, whose standing is so low – even in neighboring China – that it needs all the burnishing it can get.

Interviews with some of the musicians revealed an awareness of this. A violinist was quoted as saying that “a lot of us are…not buying into this party line that music transcends the political.” She was “sure that it [would] be used by Pyongyang and our own government in attempting to make political points.” The conductor, Lorin Maazel, who chose a program of Wagner, Dvorak, Gershwin, and Bernstein, was less cynical. The concert, he said, would “take on a momentum of its own,” and have a positive effect on North Korean society.

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? But could he possibly be right? No one, not even Maazel, pretends that one concert by a great Western orchestra can blow a dictatorship away, but authoritarians’ wariness of the subversive power of music dates back to Plato’s Republic . In Plato’s view, music, if not strictly controlled, inflames the passions and makes people unruly. He wanted to limit musical expression to sounds that were conducive to harmony and order.