Nero, Frederick the Great, Nixon … They All Did It Better Than Clinton


Many a political leader has tried sought to bolster flagging popularity through public music-making. Tacitus relates how Nero took to the stage on one memorable occasion with his lyre and sweet voice. Insulating himself from failure, Nero packed the audience with soldiers and sycophants, patricians along with the “lowest rabble,” some of whom had just engaged in various forms of staged debauchery as a public prelude to the musical spectacle to follow. Tacitus‘ description of Nero’s musical apotheosis is bitterly laconic: “Last of all, the emperor himself came on the stage, tuning his lyre with elaborate care and trying his voice with his attendants.”  While the music was greeted with “a thunder of applause,” the Prefect Burrus, Nero’s one-time tutor and later advisor “cried as he clapped.”

Like so many since, Burrus must have felt the emotional riptide so often set in motion when the the mighty perform in public, for then the thoughtful listener is subjected to powerful cross currents of admiration and dismay, envy and repulsion, scorn and sympathy. By many accounts a well-trained and talented musician, Nero’s musical pandering appalled those who claimed a nobler purpose for both politics and music. 

The most obvious parallel to the late days of the American Empire is to one of the greatest of musical opportuntists among the politicians — Bill Clinton. Who can forget his 1992 appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show, when Clinton donned Ray-Ban sunglasses and bluffed his way through Heartbreak Hotel, riding the knife edge between the inept and the barely passable to the rapture of the studio audience? Tacitus would have called them rabble. There are even those who mark Clinton’s late night performance as a watershed in his campaign for the imperial presidency, more crucial even than sending the mentally handicapped African American, Ricky Ray Rector, to his death by lethal injection six months earlier. Regardless of what one makes of music in Clinton’s political career, it seems clear that he not only used his power and fame to enjoy undreamt of musical opportunities, but that he exploited his limited ability in crafting his political aura.

Always modest about his abilities as a saxophonist, Clinton was never modest about taking to the stage with musicians.  Looking now at footage of his 1993 inaugural ball, when Clinton assembled a legion of jazz legends and young lions, one is amazed at the breathtaking nonchalance with which he improvises very badly before the jazz greats.  These musicians are of course thrilled to be basking in the sunrise of a jazz-loving presidency.  But there is something quite disconcerting about seeing the venerable tenor player, Illinois Jacquet, holding the microphone to the bell of the Clinton’s saxophone, urging on the freshly minted president as he hacks his way through several choruses of All Blues, a tune all high school jazz band learn to play, if not as badly as Clinton.  The encouraging smiles of the jazz centurions mask a deep unease at what the emperor is doing to their music.  Like Burrus, Illinois should have cried while he clapped.

Clinton was of course not the only musician among American presidents. Harry S. Truman displayed his downhome piano style at the White House at various gatherings, and Richard Nixon performed his so-called First Piano Concerto on the Jack Paar Show in 1961. Nixon’s masterpiece is a diluted neo-Romantic concoction, like Rachmaninoff heard through a haze of martinis and valium.  Yet one cannot help but admire the grace with which Dick plays his creation; he does so from memory and with an ease that suggests he was really only at home at the piano bench, for he was certainly never comfortable behind the podium at presidential debates or at White House press conferences. For Nixon, as for many rulers, a repressed, emotional side could find its outlet only in music.

The most sentimental of these rulers, even while he was one of the greatest warriors in European history, was Frederick the Great, perhaps the most avid musician among heads of state.  His chosen instrument was the newly popular transverse flute, which supplanted the recorder in the first part of the eighteenth century, in the years of the future king’s boyhood. Like so many of Frederick’s favorite cultural objects, the flute was a French import.  On ascending the Prussian throne in 1740, Frederick assembled one of the great orchestras of Europe to accompany his nightly two-hour concerts at which he was the soloist. In contrast to Clinton, there was little doubt about Frederick’s musical skill, though there were occasional grumblings about his inability to keep a constant beat, especially at faster tempos.  Such views grew more frequent as his increasing entanglements in European wars directed his monies towards military rather than musical pursuits; stagnant wages among musical workers have a way of coloring their aesthetic judgement.

Among the highlights of Frederick’s career as musical sovereign were the concerts he played in Dresden in December of 1745,  after occupying the city at the end of the Second Silesian War.  While engaging in peace negotiations by day with the representatives of the defeated Saxon rulers, he played his flute to huge and adoring audiences in the lavish Dresden opera house with the stars of the Saxon orchestra, among them Johann Adolph Hasse and his wife, the prima donna, Faustina Bordoni — the two formed the most famous and well-paid musical couple  in all of Europe. Decamped to Prague, the Saxon Elector could only fume over reports of how his rival had used the Dresden musical establishment to stage his greatest triumph as a musician.

Aside from this series of great public concerts, however, Frederick kept his music mostly to himself, playing the flute before going into battle, or in the company of his musical employees and a few (always male) visitors at one of his many palaces. From what I can tell, he cared not one whit about what others thought of him as a musician, an attitude that he could easily afford himself.

 For the greatest of 20th-century musicians/politicians the path was reversed: musical fame and artistic authenticity led into politics. Born in 1860, Ignac Paderewski, was a child prodigy, who on the international tours of his 20s was wildly received at major venues in Paris, London, and New York.

 An ardent Polish nationalist, Paderewski donated proceeds from his concerts to Polish causes, and after the First World War and served for a year as the First Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of an independent Poland. In this capacity he signed the Treaty of Versailes before resigning to take up the post of Polish ambassador to the League of Nations. By 1922, when he left politics and returned to the concert stage, Paderewski’s fame had been magnified many times over; that year he played to 20,000 people in Madison Square Gardens, then surely the largest audience ever gathered to hear a pianist.  Famously unwilling to accommodate talking while he played, Paderewski was known to stop performances if the audience would not be quiet.  Ruling over a monumental technique and profound interpretative capacities, he sought to elevate and entertain rather than to pander. Such were the luxuries a natural born and tirelessly practiced aristocrat of music could afford himself.

In 1904  Padewerski met the young pianist Harry S. Truman in Kansas City, before Truman had quit the instrument, though his mother had hoped for concert career for her son. Truman was then learning Paderewksi’s Minuet in G, and Truman was escorted back stage by his teacher. The great Polish virtuoso then spent fifteen minutes with Truman at the piano working out the nuances of his Minuet. Truman would later joke that he forced Stalin to sign the Potsdam Agreement by playing the piano at the conference. Perhaps Truman was thinking of Paderewski—who lived until 1941, that is, long enough to see Poland carved up between Germany and the USSR—when, as the new U. S. President he helped chop off a large chunk of Germany.

The complementary facets of Padereweski the pianist and the political figure, bring me finally to Condoleezza Rice, an excellent pianist who somehow finds the time to pursue her musical interests even while making the world safe for Empire.  Like that other piano playing secretary of state, Paderewski, she plays the role of the aristocrat, providing that badly needed touch of class among the crass Republicans surrounding her.

Unlike Paderewski, who did not play in public while in political office, Rice has not shied away from performing while secretary of state. At the 2006 Associations of Southeast Asian Nations‘ dinner in Kuala Lumpur, she played the mournfully eloquent Intermezzo, op. 118, no. 2, a late work of Johannes Brahms.  Rather than choosing a more festive, upbeat piece to accompany the sumptuous dinner, Rice felt the Intermezzo more appropriate to times of trouble, pointing especially to the fighting then ravaging Lebanon.  Rice’s diplomacy recognizes that music sends an important message.

She has played Brahms with Yo-Yo Ma, with international guests at state functions, and with the quintet of lawyers with whom she regularly enjoys chamber music evenings in her Washington apartment. Indeed, works by Brahms rank numbers five and six on her top ten list of favorite pieces, just below “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang and just above U2’s “Anything.”

She says she is drawn to Brahms because his music is “passionate without being sentimental.” But her reading of Brahms stakes out a rather austere modernist position, as if the hopelessly Romantic Brahms, ever thwarted in love, weren’t prone to protracted bouts of sentiment himself. I’d be more inclined to say that some of the late Brahms Rice loves often achieves a poignancy so intense that it can blind one, as it has done the Secretary of State, to a sentimentality more extreme than the allegedly more cloying (read more feminine) Schubert, whose music Rice explicitly avoids. The cultured Republican Rice would have us believe that historical greatness does not redound upon the merely ingratiating; victory is claimed not by those who feel, but for those who do. To achieve greatness one must face the music and not be seduced by it. Rice’s trumpeting American ideals are just another form of the hard-line aesthetics she pursues at the piano.

But I suspect that deep down in Rice there sings a gentle, naive, even childlike musical voice. It is the same voice that comforted so many political leaders before her, most fervently Frederick the Great and Richard Nixon—those pained, lovesick musicians trapped by political duty.

They were only truly themselves when playing their own song.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University, and is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint (Cambridge University Press). He’s also a long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu


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