Songs of freedom

Paul Evans on why music poses a threat to tyrants and overbearing governments

When Valery Gergiev conducted Shostakovich amidst Tskhinvali's blasted concrete, he sought to present a humanitarian Russia, one that had brought safety and civilisation to South Ossetia.

Those with long memories will recall that Shostakovich was not always so favoured by his homeland. In the wake of the Zhdanov Doctrine, works such as his Eighth Symphony were officially shunned for failing to convey the blinding optimism of the Soviet Union sufficiently. The state valued music for its utility in shaping and maintaining the national character.

Jazz was despised by Nazi Germany, which regarded its devotees as dangerous race traitors. An absurd set of regulations issued in 1940 shows that it was not only the culture of jazz, but its very rhythms that were regarded as dangerous. One decree read: "So-called jazz compositions may contain at the most 10 per cent syncopation; the remainder must form a natural legato movement devoid of hysterical rhythmic references characteristic of the music of the barbarian races and conducive to dark instincts alien to the German people."

In authoritarian societies, music can certainly become a destabilising force. Like sex, it has the capacity to override the supposed rationality of any ideology. Tyrants know that they cannot eliminate music and instead seek to harness it - though it is doubtful whether their vulgar, bombastic marches ever do much good. Democracies are not immune from such concerns, either. For young nations striving to forge a coherent identity, music can take on considerable potency.

In January this year, the Israeli government apologised for having blocked a performance by the Beatles in 1965, apparently concerned that the Fab Four might induce a moral lapse among young Israelis.

From its birth, song has mattered to Israel. "Hatikvah" was sung by the exhausted internees of Bergen-Belsen on its liberation in 1945. Three years later, it was unofficially adopted as Israel's national anthem. Too often anthems sound clumsily composed and are immediately forgettable, even by a nation's own citizens. They convey little about their country, either real or contrived. "Hatikvah", however, had a deep resonance. And many Israeli musicians became enthusiastic partners in state-building. In 1967 Daniel Barenboim, together with his wife, Jacqueline du Pré, and Zubin Mehta, performed for the Israel Defence Forces as the Six Day War raged.

For Barenboim, however, the relationship between music and the nation has grown into a more complex concern. He later argued that, to flourish, Israel must regard itself as a nation at home in the Middle East, and as such should promote Arab classical music actively.

Plato observed that "when musicians change their tunes the conditions of states also change". Indeed, overbearing governments have every reason to fear music, while truly confident democracies can take pride in the very fact that their citizens are singing.

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.