Now that the New York Philharmonic has accepted the North Korean government’s invitation to perform in Pyongyang , the question most worth asking is: Can music stop a man from killing people? The German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has said that writing his much-acclaimed film The Lives of Others , was for him a way to “force Lenin to listen to the Appassionata .” Lenin once told Maxim Gorky that he’d rather not listen to his favorite Beethoven sonata, for “it affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. One can’t pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people.” In von Donnersmarck’s film, one of the key protagonists, an optimistic, slightly naïve young playwright named Georg Dreyman, muses on the same passage and asks: “Can anyone who has heard this music, I mean truly heard it, really be a bad person?”

On February 26 of next year, playing in a hall with seating for 1,500 people, the New York Philharmonic will be in a position to answer both questions. Or, at least, they will be in a position to force the despicable North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to listen to Antonín Dvořák’s “New World” symphony and George Gershwin’s An American In Paris . Not everyone thinks that this is a good idea. No voice is more compelling than Terry Teachout’s, who writes not from the position of foreign policy analyst but as a music critic, a man devoted to art. In his recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal , he asks a series of devastating questions:

What would you have thought if Franklin Roosevelt had encouraged the Philharmonic to accept an official invitation to play in Berlin in the spring of 1939? Do you think such a concert would have softened the hearts of the Nazis, any more than Jesse Owens’s victories in the 1936 Olympics changed their minds about racial equality? Or inspired the German people to rise up and revolt against Adolf Hilter? Or saved a single Jewish life?

Sometimes, rhetorical questions can have an odd way of answering each other. Every question in Teachout’s interrogation drives a lance straight through Georg Dreyman’s Panglossian musing. They also make it difficult to believe that the question I posed at the beginning of this piece could ever be answered in the affirmative. Nevertheless, it is still worthwhile to speculate as to what might happen on that evening in Pyongyang, now that the invitation has been accepted.

As to the political effects that the Philharmonic’s visit will cause, a worst-case scenario might involve Kim kidnapping the entire orchestra. This is plausible, since Kim has already proven himself to be mad enough to kidnap his favorite South Korean director, Shin Sang-Ok, in 1978, and hold him and his wife hostage for eight years. Kim’s advisers, however, might convince him that risking war with the United States might not be the best strategic option at this time. A more realistic fear might involve a shift in the international community’s perception of the United States: We’ll be a hit in Europe, but China, the key regional power, might think, “A year ago, the North Koreans tested a nuke; today, the Americans are serenading them.” This is also Teachout’s fear (as well as the title of his article)¯that Kim Jong-Il will transform the concert into a propaganda victory for himself, and convince, if not the world, at least his own citizens (who already literally worship him) that the best musicians in America have traveled across the world to serenade a god.

Assuming that the worst does not occur, however, it could be argued that, even without the Philharmonic’s visit, the Chinese might already be saying: “A year ago, the North Koreans tested a nuke. Today, the Americans are offering them carrots for disarmament.” Yet, whatever one thinks of the United States’ current diplomatic initiatives with Pyongyang, it is hard to argue against the most probable outcome of the Philharmonic’s visit: that the cultural exchange will essentially grant legitimacy to a rogue regime responsible for the deaths of 400,000 people in concentration camps, with an estimated 200,000 currently imprisoned (not to mention the estimated million or so deaths due to famine during the 1990s).

This is a more difficult issue, and poses a moral as well as a strategic dilemma. When Canadian pianist Glenn Gould visited the Russia of Khruschev, murder and injustice still reigned in the Soviet Union, but the Khruschev government was fully integrated into the international community. The same cannot be said for Kim’s regime. But the Philharmonic could convincingly argue (after the fact, for obvious reasons) that their mission is to serve the North Korean people and not to attenuate tensions between the United States and North Korea. They could do as Peter Hitchens did on a recent visit to North Korea, when he laid a wreath at the foot of one of Kim’s statues. In his stunning account titled “ Prisoners in Camp Kim ,” he confesses: “As I laid the equally obligatory and hideous flowers, I silently assured myself that I was doing so in memory of Kim’s many victims.”

But the New York Philharmonic will be offering North Korea’s living victims more than “obligatory and hideous flowers.” They will be offering the sublime. (Imagine the monomaniacal Kim shifting in his seat during the thunderous fourth movement of “New World.”) It is easy, however, to downplay even this. Again, Teachout makes the right observations: Only the elite few who are allowed in Pyongyang would be able to see the show, and the audience will most likely be composed of people handpicked by the regime. And, even if the concert were televised and seen by more people, Kim could use the performance as a propaganda victory. Apart from that, Teachout notes, “North Korea . . . does not have anything remotely resembling a serious musical culture¯and what it does have is not available to ordinary citizens.” They might not even understand, or know how to appreciate, Dvořák.

And yet, whatever the political and logistical contingencies to consider, nothing can change the fact that, on the evening of February 26, 2008, something beautiful and powerful could happen in Pyongyang, something that may not have happened there in decades. Teachout’s title, “Serenading a Tyrant,” is inaccurate. A Catholic will tell you that a priest performing a Mass validly is worshipping God; if a madman sitting in the pews convinces every single attendee that the priest is actually worshipping him, and performing the liturgy at his service, the objectivity of the rite will not change. In art, the sacramental certainty is supplanted by the certainty of beauty: Nothing Kim Jong Il could say will change the objectivity of the beauty of Dvořák’s symphony. Nothing, borrowing earplugs, and maybe not even earplugs, will keep the party bosses and murderous generals from listening. The Philharmonic’s performers will be at the service of a greater master, a divinity that even an atheist can believe in¯a master that even Kim will be able to behold, and feel jealous of. The New York musicians will be very different from the slavish performers that Kim is used to seeing in the mass gymnastics events regularly held in North Korea, all whom perform at his service.

What W.H. Auden said about poetry can also be said of music: It makes nothing happen. This might be true, depending on what is meant by “happen.” Sixty years of dictatorship in North Korea might also lead some to believe that foreign policy makes nothing happen. But Teachout is right: Music will not make Kim repent, and it will not get him to dismantle his nuclear program. (Lenin did listen to Beethoven, Stalin did listen to Shostakovich.)

At the same time, the good that can come out of the Philharmonic’s visit is not directly detectable by the calculus of diplomacy. In von Donnersmarck’s film, the East German Communist spy who is awakened and transformed by music does not overthrow the communist dictatorship by the end of the film; he merely saves the life of one man. The Philharmonic’s performance might not even do that. Teachout references a photograph made famous by Don Rumsfeld, taken at night by a weather satellite: South Korea is filled with the golden electric lights of busy cities; North Korea lies mostly in darkness. What the Philharmonic will bring is something beyond Kim’s control that can penetrate that darkness.

Santiago Ramos writes about art for the Kansas City weekly The Pitch .

Articles by Santiago Ramos

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