Music in the Time of Trump
October 1, 2020
The night that Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, I couldn’t sleep. That Republicans nominated him as a candidate was shocking enough, but the fact that so many Americans had voted for a man deeply unfit for the presidency was incomprehensible.
Since then, no matter how incompetent, ignorant, racist, unethical, mean spirited, self serving, or illegal Trump’s actions have been, almost all members of his Republican Party whimper in fetal position, too scared to even open their mouths in response. In Nazi Germany, criticizing Hitler unquestionably meant jail or death. In America, however, if you criticize Trump, he might merely honor you with a twitter tongue lashing, or worst still, you could be voted out of office. That’s it. No jail time. No death. Republicans, have you no shame.
And then, the Covid-19 virus made its ominous arrival on our shores. Trump dithered, lied, and even obstructed scientists from doing their job. The virus has subsequently brought America to its knees, and with no end in sight. As a result, the magic of live music for both performers and their listeners is suddenly a thing of the past, and my colleagues in large part have been deprived of their very livelihood as music venues right and left are cancelled.
It didn’t have to be this way. Taiwan, for example, is a global leader in fighting Covid-19. The country has had a plan in place for years that involved among other things quarantines, contact tracing, and wide availability of masks. Throughout the course of the pandemic, there have been to date a total of seven deaths in Taiwan and less than 500 infections. This has allowed Cho-Liang Lin’s Taipei Music Academy and Festival to take place without the deadly virus in attendance. Distinguished musicians from all over the world arrived in Taipei for the Festival and were immediately quarantined for fourteen days in their hotel rooms before being allowed to participate. This strict adherence to sound guidelines has made it possible for Taipei to thrive artistically.
I’ve sometimes objected strongly to the policies of our government. And yet, until now I’ve never had the feeling that the America I was born and raised in, the America that has given me the opportunity to thrive, the America I love even despite its profound flaws of racism and inequality, is in danger of losing its grand experiment in democracy. That is, until Donald Trump entered our lives and thumbed his nose at our Constitution, emasculated our system of checks and balances, and threatened to turn our country into a banana republic with him as the head banana.
One thing has comforted me deeply in this time of Trump, and that is music. No surprise there. Music is my beloved profession; and yet it’s power extends far beyond. As a child, music opened doors to a wondrous world of sounds that was breathtaking but almost unnerving in the emotions it stirred. And music once revealed meant that I could never again live without it.
There was an old New Yorker magazine cartoon that showed a drab landscape littered with an empty bottle and can, and a cast off tire. The caption read: Life Without Mozart. In these barren Trump years, I wonder whether music of any kind- never mind Mozart- has had a place at his White House. Ronald Reagan delighted in inviting a wide variety of musicians to perform at the White House. The great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals performed for John Kennedy’s White House. Jimmy Carter not only invited our Guarneri String Quartet to his, but in introducing us, went into great detail about the work we were to perform, Dvorak’s American Quartet. Barack Obama had a tradition of musical night at the white house in which he and his wife Michelle hosted everything from classic, to country, to blues, and jazz. And Donald Trump? As far as I can tell, absolutely nothing has taken place on his watch at the People’s House. In fact, word has it that Trump consistently shows antipathy for both music and the arts. That New Yorker cartoon could easily be re-captioned in Trump world: Life without music.
I listen to music for pleasure, for enrichment, for comfort, and as a way to take my mind off the chaos and tragedy of the Covid-19 virus, the migrant children separated cruelly from their parents at the border, unemployment and misery at an all time high, and Trump blithely lying to us that America is once again great under his leadership.
I listen to all kind of things: Leonard Bernstein conducting Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony, Arthur Schnabel playing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 10#3, Pablo Casals playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite #1, and for a little change of pace, Billie Holiday singing Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Nat King Cole Trio with Mona Lisa, Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti, Jerome Kern’s Bill as sung by Helen Morgan and Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli playing Lime House Blues.
And I play my violin for an audience of one- me. It gives me pleasure to run my fingers up and down an instrument I’ve been playing for the last seventy-seven years. I play some scales to put a little life in my old joints, then perhaps J.S. Bach’s magnificent Chaconne or the Béla Bartók Solo Sonata, written for Yehudi Menuhin, a masterpiece that somehow escaped my attention earlier in life. And I often finish with the Meditation, that incense laden, heart on the sleeve melody from the opera Thaïs by the French composer, Jules Massenet.
During the course of the opera, the courtesan Thaïs sits on stage deep in meditation while the concertmaster from the orchestra pit plays the violin solo, a long, winding melody buttressed by languid harmonies. Thaïs must decide whether to return to a life of pleasure with her lover Nicias or answer to the monk Athanael who begs her to relinquish her life of sin and enter a monastery.
Thaïs is merely a fictional character in a fictional story, but we Americans have our own very real meditation confronting us. Like Thaïs, we must choose between two extremes in the coming election. On the one hand, there is Donald J Trump, corrupt to the bone and utterly unconcerned about the state of our country or its people as long as his narrow self-interests are served. Then you have Joe Biden Jr.- decent, experienced, and whether you agree or not with all his politics, unquestionably devoted to the well being of our country, its citizens, and our planet now threatened by global warning.
This election is no longer only about poverty, abortion, immigration, taxes, the minimum wage, or the debt. The fragile soul of our land hovers before us.
Americans, let us tell friends, relatives, and even total strangers
From the mountains, to the prairies,
to the oceans white with foam,
just how consequential this election really is.
And finally, as if our very lives depend on it,
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Thank you, Sir. Well said.
I share your sentiments entirely. #45’s lack of music in the White House is symptomatic of his seeming lack of a soul. I am an amateur violinist and everything you say I identify with. I also play with friends on my porch every Sat. to bring live music to my friends and neighbors (all wearing masks and distancing of course). I cannot thank you enough for this beautiful tribute to music.
Perfect. Thank you for your eloquence.
Thanks, Arnold for an articulate and logical statement to our current chaos here in the United States. It is very hard for me to believe that we have gotten to this stage in our history. I am optimistic that we will correct our course this November and get back on a more sane and sensible path for future generations!
Thank You Arnold!
Hear! Hear! Well said, Mr. Steinhardt.
Thank you, Arnold Steinhardt! May the White House and American concert halls be once again filled with music!
Beautifully stated, Arnold. You perfectly capture my own thoughts about this strange and bleak timeline we live in. I was talking with friends just a few days ago about the total lack of culture and, really, anything joy-inducing in this White House. I don’t believe he’s hosted Kennedy Center honorees even once, nor attended the awards ceremonies. Apart from his golfing, there doesn’t seem to be anything in the way of games or leisure activities or just *fun* that he and his family participate in. I can’t imagine them playing a board game en famille. I can’t picture them just spontaneously joking around and laughing and relaxing. He reportedly dislikes animals, so no pets for any of the Trump kids as they were/are growing up. As for music, if Fox & Friends has a theme song (I don’t know), that would be the extent of it.
I hope you’re well. We *will* reclaim all that’s good about our country, and make it better!
The Guarneri’s splendidly colorful and energetic recording of Beethoven’s Middle Quartets was my introduction to that music in 1969. I have many regrets but never for the time and money I have invested in music. I finally got a degree in music because nothing else interested me as much! Please consider that many people root for Trump because of his outstanding ability to get good things done and only partly for his rude distain for the political and journalistic classes. Look at peace breaking out in the Middle East! Did you ever think you would see this happen in your lifetime? Joe Biden represents 47 years of excuses why Democrats couldn’t get it done. You can argue with the man but you can’r argue with results.
I LOVE THIS POST! You couldn’t be more right about trump
Thank you for speaking out!
I had turned to Guarneri’s Beethoven set this morning at a moment when reading the news was threatening to push me over the edge. Feeling much better to the strains of Op. 59 no. 1, I opened my email to find this post. Thank you for expressing so eloquently exactly what I was also feeling, and for providing the musical salve to help me get through it! Can’t wait to vote.
Well done, well said.
THANK YOU, Arnold, for these inspiring, sympathetic, and important words. I’m going to share them with all my friends and family. And I’m writing letters to encourage people to vote through Swing Left and Vote Forward. Together, we can remove the evil man and his henchmen from office and improve the sorry state of our beloved country.
Thank you! and thank you
As always, but what a painful subject!! I’m about to turn 97 and in my whole life America was never in a more vulnerable position!! We Must Prevail!! Love to you and Dodo— Sonya
Beautifully said. Thank you.
Thank you for an article that says it all. Going to vote this Friday. I hope you influence more people.
I found your story so poignant in these trying times. While I was a scientist at USC for the last 50 years, music has always been a part of my life. I still play the piano and the cello almost every day which gives me great pleasure while unfortunately, lunatics run and ruin our country and world. I also think of our respective parents, who knew each other, and the incredible events they experienced during their lives.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I was born in Germany during Hitler’s horrible reign, and I did not believe when I came to this country 56 years ago that what you so powerfully describe would be possible here. Yes, our VOTE in November will be our only salvation.
Thank you again, your voice must be heard! What do you tell someone who is against abortion? What do you tell someone who is against gun control? What do you tell someone who says that we will end up like Venezuela with a socialist President? You tell them Trump is a “Hitler”, yes a “Hitler” only wanting power!! One man is decent, the other indecent, that simple!!
Thank you for your eloquent and passionate statement. With COVID having all but shut down the performing arts for the time being, Trump’s handling of the pandemic ensures that it will be a long time before I can enjoy live performances again. I do hope that the arts and the artists can survive this long drought.
God bless you, Arnold. Without rancor or name calling, you have summed up my feelings also. We managed to play quartets, masked and socially distanced, outside, in the shade of a tree last Sunday and it was as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. We need music in our lives and I feel sorry for anyone who lacks the ability to appreciate it. I love your blog. Keep letting us into your life.
Wow. Well said. I’ve been an admirer of your playing and writing for a long (very long) time, and have shared your music stories. I will certainly share this. Thank you so much. I wish you weren’t so right about the frightening dangers of Trump
BRAVO! Bravo! ?
Thank you for writing this so beautifully for all of us, Mr.Steinhardt! I retired in ’92 after forty years with The Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra to make sure that its 54-year history,”Symphonic Journey,Con Amore” could be written and published. It was masterfully completed in 2003 by Robert Finn, then retired Music Critic of The Cleveland Plain Dealer. My string quartet disbanded last year when we lost our violist to Fairfield,Va.
Thank you, Arnold, for this eloquent and heartfelt essay on the most critical election facing our country. Fingers and toes are crossed that enough citizens will vote to change course by electing a president and senators who will work to uphold and strengthen our democracy, which has been dangerously weakened during the current administration. In the meantime, music remains an inspiration, balm and refuge for so many of us, so I will do my best to support artists who must find new ways to share their performances.
Thank you, Arnold, for this passionate statement of music in the time of Trump (who it was just announced tested positive, along with Melania, for Covid-19). I am glad you are able to be helped by music, which has been your life, in these deeply troubling times. I am doing some work in urging strangers to vote and hope it helps. May somehow America and the world survive this moment. Love to you and thank you for the beautiful music you have made with your colleagues through the years. be well. Best regards.
May God bless America!
Thank you Arnold. I love all your Strawberry stories, and to this one I say “Right on!” Much love from Cremona
Dearest Arnold This is a masterpiece which I am proud to share with as many as I can. It comes from your heart and soul and is deeply moving and inspiring. You are not only a great violinist
who has given so much joy to so many, a wonderful friend since so many decades but a great and thoughtful writer. Menahem and I send you love from London Annabelle
YES! Thank you!
Yes-Yes-Yes!!! Thank you,Arnold. I could hear the integrity and passion of your playing in every word.
Trump ducks, and we all.have to vote this fruitcake out of office! The fraud got the hoax, and may it help him join the other 200k+, whose deaths he is mostly responsible for!
Arnold this is a masterpiece! You are not only a great violinist who has given endless pleasure to so many, a wonderful steadfast friend but also a great writer. What you write comes from your heart and from your soul, it moves and inspires. Thank you for it. Annabelle
I always love reading your writing, but this, dear Mr. Steinhardt, this one made me cry. I feel much less alone and I thank you, profoundly.
Beautifully spoken by someone who has made a profound impact on the world of music, and who expresses himself like an old soul.
Thank you for reminding me of the healing role of music in this time of extended and accelerating madness.
Thank you, Arnold! Consistent with your unerring insight, you have framed the horror of our time but also provided us with a possible life line and by implication the power that all of us have to successfully remove the threat.
Dear Arnold, I am so gratified to hear an artist explain the devastation I feel when the thought of another four years under this administration. I also choose music and movies, too, because of the many gifts bestowed on my ears and how I’m taken to a place where everything beautiful is eternal. I am voting and for the first time I have three granddaughters voting! Have a wonderful day, Elena
Thank you for this eloquent statement!
continue to play and enjoy Music. You are an incredible Musician. Stay away from politics please. It is something you are not very informed in.
Thank you for these spot-on thoughts. I. too, am playing my most soothing music by myself, including Thais, though on my beloved cello. May all the powers in the universe bring Biden-Harris to victory!
Beautiful text! Thank you!!! I grew up in California from age 7 breaks my heart to watch ..
Well said! My only solace these days is in playing the viola in my quartet (outside, masks, social distances). In my 66 years I never thought this country could come to this. I am looking forward to voting in November!
Yes, Trump is truly a tragedy for America. The only good that can come from this 4 year nightmare is that perhaps Americans can come to agreement (perhaps at least 55% or 60% of them)… on what is good, what is bad — what is essential decency and what is bad government, what is good virtue and what is horrible indecency in every respect. I am convinced that America is capable of true greatness, but it will only be expressed if the American people step up and provide the stimulus for greatness.
I believe in the capacity for goodness and potential for greatness.
Everyone VOTE! Lets get the monster out of the White House and resume a path previously taken by our people and our nation. Harvey Brandt
brave and savvy you are out there in the western landscape!
for me it’s the nightly broadcast “jazz a la mode” at 8 pm from NEPM, amherst. but i wish i could hear you play live again! sandy
Indeed Arnold, and we are all watching from other parts of the globe. All good wishes to you and that once great land.
After today’s most recent Trump assault on Democracy I’m listening to the George Szell/Cleveland Orchestra recording of Beethoven’s Egmont and feel reasonably assured that there is hope come January 20th.
Here in the UK we have our own DT wannabe, Boris Johnson. With his Brexit cronies and their lack of empathy and support of music and the arts makes me very sad. But it can be explained very succinctly with Shakespeare:
‘‘The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils; The motions of his spirit are dull as night, And his affections dark as Erebus. Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music……”
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (V, I, 83-85)
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