The exaggerated Mozart-Salieri feud, and the colour line in classical music

The great anti racist scholar and activist, the African American W E. B Du Bois, greatly admired the music of antisemite and pan-German racist, Richard Wagner. This may seem like an incongruous picture – Du Bois, noted for his anti racism work, respected the music of a white nationalist.

We will return to the issue of the colour line in classical music later. The Radetzky march, Johann Strauss from the Austro-Hungarian empire. Mention of the Austria-Hungary empire makes us consider one of the most famous (infamous) musicians from that confederation – Antonio Salieri. Born in Italy, Salieri rose through the ranks to become Kapellmeister – the top musician in the land – at the court of Emperor Franz Joseph in Vienna.

Let’s address an ongoing urban legend – did Salieri, driven by jealousy and professional resentment, poison Mozart? No. This legend was given an enormous boost by the 1984 film Amadeus, based on the 1979 play of the same name. Were Mozart and Salieri rivals? Yes. But Salieri did not murder Mozart by way of poisoning or overwork.

If Salieri, as the most powerful musician in the Hapsburg court, wanted to get rid of Mozart, he could very easily have had Mozart fired. This would have abruptly ended Mozart’s musical career. Salieri was director of Italian opera, court composer and conductor. While Salieri and Mozart were rivals, they also cooperated on numerous projects. So they were ‘frenemies’, to use a modern colloquialism.

Vienna, the seat of the Hapsburg court, was a place of self-interested factions, rivalries and seething intrigues. Various groupings competed for jobs and the attention of the royal court. The Italians, such as Salieri, were targets of whispering campaigns by the loyal Austrian-Germans, whose musical traditions were being challenged by an emerging Italian nation.

Mozart himself, in numerous private letters to his father, bitterly complained that the Italians at court were sabotaging his career and undermining his chances of promotion. No doubt Mozart was seeking a scapegoat to blame for his career setbacks. Nevertheless, in this atmosphere of petty jealousies and professional rivalries, gossip was bound to circulate – an early example of swirling misinformation.

In 1830, five years after Salieri’s death, Alexander Puskhkin wrote a play, turned into an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov decades later, presented a jealous Salieri resentful of the success of the upstart Mozart. From there, the story took hold and became an urban legend. In fact, when Mozart passed away in 1791, a small group of mourners gathered to say their final goodbyes. One of those mourners was Antonio Salieri.

While it is important to restore Salieri’s reputation, and remove the portrayal of him as a resentful loser, there is a more important issue to address – the unalloyed whiteness of what is considered classical music. It is perfectly okay to enjoy the work of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Wagner and Johan Strauss. As we noted above, the antiracist activist W E B Du Bois enjoyed classical music.

As the European nations set out on colonising other nations, they brought with them their musical canon – a series of sacralised musical bodies of work elevated into a gold standard. However, they did not acknowledge, whether intentionally or not, another important fact; the Africans brought to the new world through the transatlantic slave trade also brought with them their own musicality, separate and distinct from white European standards.

Added to that was a further twist – the contribution of immigrants to the musical tradition in the United States. As the US constructed its own racial pyramid, the contributions of black and indigenous musicians was studiously excluded. When Antonin Dvorak (1841 – 1904), noted Czech composer, traveled to the US, he famously remarked that the future of music lay with African American composers and performers. He was both right and wrong.

His prophecy came to pass, in that black Americans contributed to jazz, hip hop, soul as well as classical music; but he wrongly underestimated the depth of racial hostility to the nonwhite population, even among the classical music world. American classical music orchestras and performers were nearly exclusively white. German immigrants, leftists and liberals fleeing Germany after the suppression of the 1848 revolutions, were a foundational element for the Boston and New York Philharmonic orchestras. Black musicians were present in American life, but excluded from the classical music canon.

Am I suggesting that everyone who listens to Beethoven or Brahms is a vicious racist? No, of course not. Should the entirety of the German-European canon of classical music be thrown out? No, of course not. The curriculum of classical music should be diversified and widened to include the hitherto ignored black and nonwhite composers. Let’s take advice from George E Lewis in the New York Times – lift the cone of silence surrounding black composers and give them their due.

If positive thinking works for you, that is great – do not turn it into a money making cult

We are all familiar with uplifting aphorisms – accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade – sound advice. There is a basic validity to all of this; it is important for our mental health to maintain an upbeat, optimistic attitude, even in the face of life’s difficulties and obstacles. Nobody wants to be around a person who has a misery-guts temperament.

However, the positive thinking-self help mantra has become a huge multibillion dollar industry. There is a plethora of self-help books, podcasts, webinars and publications all exhorting us to adopt a positive, upbeat attitude in the face of setbacks and obstacles. As Newsweek magazine explained, this corporate philosophy has seeped into the school room, the military, and workplaces.

The late Barbara Ehrenreich (1941 – 2022), who sadly passed away only recently, exposed the dark side of relentless positivity in her work. While known as a writer documenting the growing inequality of capitalist society, it is her work elaborating the positive thinking as a scam that is relevant here. Sonali Kolhatkar wrote about this topic in her recent article.

Being bright sided

In 2009, Ehrenreich published her book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. In it, she elaborates that while being upbeat in difficult times is all well and good, positive thinking has turned into an American mass delusion. Focusing relentlessly on the individual mindset, we have ignored the many structural inequalities and problems that produce individual down time in the first place.

From the 1990s onwards, as the corporate world experienced mass redundancies, and overwork for the remaining staff, positive thinking became a tool to offset outrage at industrial closures by misdirecting attention to purely individual mindsets. Positive thinking became a measure by which economic inequalities – and the downsizing decisions corporations make which exacerbate those inequities – can be obscured.

In this way, the negative impacts of layoffs and business closures can be reduced to a failing of individual mindsets – the unemployed person is exhorted to simply change to positive thinking (being laid off is an ‘opportunity’) and all will be well. Poverty, rather than being the product of neoliberal economic policies, is presented as an individual failing that can be overcome by specific individual choices.

The phrase ‘everything happens for a reason’ contains an element of truth – but in this age of unbridled positive thinking, it has replaced the age-old religious exhortation ‘it’s God’s will’ as a defensively pessimistic aphorism. Speaking of religion, the rise of the ostentatious mega churches is also associated with the cult of positive thinking. The fraudulent prosperity gospel – God wants me to be wealthy – has acquired millions of adherents, particularly in the United States and Latin America.

Jimmy Swaggart, a motivational speaker, performer and ideological charlatan masquerades as a Christian preacher. He promotes his own theologically influenced variety of the positive thinking mantra. Joel Osteen, Jesse Duplantis, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar – these are just some of the ultrawealthy pastors whose riches are allegedly bestowed upon them by an ever-loving God. The prosperity theology downplays collective solidarity and action, and promotes a purely individual approach geared towards embracing consumerism.

Let’s balance out the equation here; it is not only the megachurch religious institutions which promote a variety of positive thinking. Oprah Winfrey, billionaire entrepreneur, media mogul and motivational speaker, has provided a platform for all kinds of pseudoscientific hokum, including positive thinking. Recycling the basic philosophy contained in the books by Norman Vincent Peale and Napoleon Hill, Winfrey did her utmost to promote The Secret, a purported ‘law’ of attraction.

Think positive thoughts and goals, and you will attract only positive things into your life. Sounds like an eminently sensible idea, only that Winfrey turned this book into an overwhelming ‘philosophy’ of life. There is a resemblance here to the idea of the Protestant work ethic – that capitalism was built through the individual hard work of each person, implementing a Protestant work ethic.

Attributing the success of the capitalist project to individual self-reliance and motivation is a convenient myth we tell ourselves, ignoring the collective efforts of working class people. Max Weber elaborated this spirit of capitalism idea in his famous book. The notion of individual success dovetails nicely with modernised claims of positive thinking.

While a detailed critique of this alleged work ethic is out of place here, it is necessary to make a relevant observation; the late Rev Dr Martin Luther King stated that capitalism was not built on the Protestant work ethic of self-sacrifice, but upon the enslavement and exploitation of African labour power. The vaunted can-do attitude of American capitalism, where success is simply up to each individual, is based upon the collective labour of millions of people.

In this age of social media, where anyone with a Facebook account can market themselves as a guru in whatever subject they enjoy, we are surrounded by ‘influencers’ and self-proclaimed experts on positive thinking. Let’s put aside the influencers, and start thinking of ourselves as comrades, working together to implement collective solutions to our common problems.

Revisiting the war on terror, Afghanistan and the assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri

There are numerous retrospectives available to mark the 21st anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Rather than regurgitate the manufactured sentimentality of official commemorations, it is better to examine the underlying lessons of the foreign policy decisions taken in the immediate aftermath of those attacks.

History always has contemporary relevance and ramifications. US officialdom gave the global war on terror a propaganda boost in recent months with the drone assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan. Allegedly the ‘number 2’ of Al Qaeda and plotter of the Sept 11 atrocity, he was killed on the orders of US President Joe Biden.

There are no tears for Zawahiri – his ideology was repugnant. He was actually a qualified surgeon, and by the time of his death, irrelevant to the politics of the region. Dismissed and disrespected by ISIS and other jihadist offshoots, his death will do absolutely nothing to solve the problem of ideologically inspired terrorism. Let us not join Washington in gloating over his death either – because malignant hypocrisy underlines US policies in the region.

Salafi jihadist groups are hardly an exclusively indigenous product, arising spontaneously from the Muslim majority nations. As Dave Mizner observes in his article on the rise of Islamist groups, the US and Britain have longstanding policies of deliberately cultivating and using violent ultrarightist jihadist groups. Socially regressive and with only a passing familiarity with the Quran, these organisations are not only instruments of US foreign policy, but are also instrumentalised into the stereotype of the ‘culturally backward’ Muslim Washington likes to criticise.

Amy Zegart, a political scientist writing in The Atlantic, writes about the challenges of teaching students about Sept 11, which they regard as long-ago history. She explains how she has to convey the contemporary relevance of an event that happened 21 years ago. It is commendable to have an historical perspective. Bearing that in mind, the road to Sept 11 began in the 1970s and 80s.

Professor Mahmood Mamdani writes that the deliberate cultivation of fanatical and ultrarightist Afghan rebels, to undermine and overthrow the 1978-79 Afghan socialist government, turned an anticommunist insurgency into a hotbed of extremist jihadist groups. Al Qaeda, ISIS and similar organisations trace their ideological lineage back to this effort, with the US using these fighters to reverse the gains of the Afghan revolution. This policy began before the 1979 Soviet intervention.

In the 1980s, then US President Ronald Reagan welcomed the political representatives of the Afghan mujahideen groups, while Saudi Arabia and Pakistan both joined the anticommunist crusade by sponsoring and arming their own proxy groups for the Afghanistan insurgency. Out of this cauldron of hatred grew what eventually became the Taliban, in the aftermath of the 1992 overthrow of the Afghan revolutionary government. As Ed Rampell wrote in the People’s World magazine, the US original sin in Afghanistan began in 1979, not Sept 11.

One of the rationales provided by Washington for the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and the subsequent assassination of Zawahiri, was complicity in the Sept 11 attacks. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was actually an exercise in a neo-colonial imperialism, the the US and Britain establishing a modern satrapy run by a kleptocratic elite. That is interesting, because there was a time when terrorism perpetrators were actually captured and convicted in federal courts.

In 1993, ultrarightist Islamist militants detonated a bomb at the World Trade Centre. While the bombing failed to bring down the twin towers, the intention was no different to the later Sept 11 atrocity. The perpetrators were captured, charged with murder and conspiracy, and convicted. This was done before anyone dreamt of the Patriot act, and with the cooperation of other nations.

Why was not the same done with Zawahiri, or Osama bin Laden? The US wanted to make a large blockbuster splash for the world’s media. Bragging about ‘taking out’ your opponents, like a mafia godfather, certainly generates publicity. Trials get bogged down in legal details, and do not make for gripping drama.

It is worth bearing in mind that in the early 1960s, Francis Gary Powers, flying a U2 spy plane through Soviet territory, was put on trial and the evidence of his guilt displayed to the world’s media by the Moscow authorities. Shot down and captured, his guilt as a CIA spy was conclusively established, exposing Washington’s evasions.

August this year was the first anniversary of the American retreat from Afghanistan, after a nearly 20 year occupation of that country. In scenes reminiscent of Saigon 1975, Kabul 2021 witnessed the ignominious defeat of powerful military force. It is high time to admit that this war on terror has failed to reduce terrorism, or make the world a safer place. In fact, the paranoid mindset and associated surveillance techniques accumulated by state power, has only resulted in creating the kind of authoritarian state we claim to oppose.

For a start, if President Biden was serious about implementing meaningful changes, he could start by stopping drone strikes, though his recent conduct suggests this prospect is remote. He could also stop Washington’s long-standing practice of arming and training ultrarightist Salafi militants, which generates the reservoir of hatred and political violence that led us to September 11.

Hollywood war movies, selective sympathy and covering up war crimes

Propaganda is usually thought of as something other nations and governments do – Russia, China, Iran, North Korea to name but a few. Yet the most effective propaganda comes from Hollywood, intricately interlocking with the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex. Writing in Counterpunch magazine, David Swanson observes:

Propaganda is most impactful when people don’t think it’s propaganda, and most decisive when it’s censorship you never knew happened. When we imagine that the U.S. military only occasionally and slightly influences U.S. movies, we are extremely badly deceived. The actual impact is on thousands of movies made, and thousands of others never made. And television shows of every variety.

The military-industrial complex has had an influential presence in the production of Hollywood movies for decades. This relationship has been mutually beneficial, providing movie studios with financial backing, military equipment and supplies worth billions in exchange for creating military-friendly film content. The scripts are subject to approval by the US military or Pentagon.

Top Gun recycled – belligerent jingoism

American-advocated solutions, based on the deployment of violence epitomised by the latest military-grade hardware, is a common cinematic theme in modern Hollywood. Films churned out under the influence of the Pentagon are not works of art, but rather forms of propaganda intended to legitimise and glorify American militarism.

Hollywood recently released the highly anticipated, and long awaited sequel, to the 1986 film Top Gun. The new offering, Top Gun: Maverick, is basically a recycling of the original movie. A military recruitment advertisement masquerading as a film, Maverick solidified the superstar status of its main protagonist Tom Cruise.

The original Top Gun, made with the close collaboration of the US military, resulted in a huge increase in naval recruitments. However, there is another more insidious consequence of such propaganda; the portrayal of American military power as a benevolent force for good in the world. The audience is invited to marvel at the sophisticated technology, the smart bombs and massive warplanes, and sympathise with the ostensible suffering of the aviators and troops. The victims of American war crimes are nowhere to be seen.

Humanitarian American military intervention

The few antiwar movies that Hollywood has made, such Born on the Fourth of July starring Tom Cruise – deal with the American crisis of confidence after their defeat in Vietnam. Films of a pro war orientation have assisted in overcoming the ‘Vietnam syndrome’; popular opponent to American imperialist wars. Movies such as Top Gun are not unusual or exceptional in pushing a pro war message.

The movie Zero Dark Thirty, released in 2012, made a positive case for torture. It portrayed the capture of Osama Bin Laden as a result of information gained through torturing suspects. This movie was made with the direct supervision of the CIA. Even the US Senate, after a huge outcry against this favourable depiction of torture, was compelled to admit that the capture of Bin Laden was not a direct consequence of information obtained through waterboarding, but through old fashioned methodical police work.

Not long after the release of the original Top Gun movie, American air power demonstrated its barbaric ferocity in the first Gulf War (1990 – 91). American military aviators attacked Iraq’s infrastructure, destroying the electricity grid, hospitals, sewage systems and schools. The supposedly accurate and precision-guided smart bombs devastated the Al-Amiriyah air raid shelter, killing 400 Iraqi civilians. Iraqis commemorate the victims of this criminal bombing every year.

Such crimes reveal the true face of American military violence overseas, but yet in the Anglophone nations, the Hollywood war propaganda movies pervade the public consciousness. The long and subversive involvement of the US intelligence community in the internal political affairs of Iran remains obscured behind the commercially successful output of Hollywood – Argo, the 2012 movie, fills our collective void.

The United States was instrumental in overthrowing the democratically elected nationalist government of Iranian President Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. The US helped to prop up the savagely repressive Shah of Iran, and trained the Iranian secret police. Yet this historical context is forgotten as we are invited to cheer on CIA agent Ben Affleck in Argo, leading a rescue of American hostages in Tehran. What matters to Anglophone audiences is the suffering of Americans – the Iranians, and nonwhite people in general, are reduced to a hysterical, irrationally violent chaotic mass.

While propaganda in the so-called enemy nations may be crude and overtly political, propaganda in the capitalist nations – usually called public relations – is more technically sophisticated and insidious. As Joe Giambrone wrote, Hollywood presents a nonpolitical face to the world, but its messages are highly politicised. Let’s abandon the hyperpatriotic waffle, and critically examine the war propaganda that pervades our lives.