Politics and culture as a whole have an odd relationship. In some instances, it almost seems as if that relationship boils down to who gets to say what. American political scientist John Orman likens rock music to Marx’s view on religion when he says it is “a very entertaining opiate.” Music can never be entirely separate from politics, that these two forces are unlikely to ever be divorced from one another in their affect on sociopolitical influence on society at large. (Dance of Life; Lockard; p. 28) Orman’s stance dictates that music as an art can be used a tool of politics. Here I will discuss two varying examples of this: the Third Reich’s usage of Beethoven’s music and South Korea’s wholesale ban on Japanese musical imports.

Once in power, the National Socialist party began constructing intellectual machinery to enforce the Nazi ideal of music appreciation and also to project upon those favored musical examples a political meaning it had not previously carried. According to National Socialism pamphlets, atonal composition was nothing more than “musical bolshevism”, created by Jews to incite chaos and upheaval in the world at large. The music of the German masters (Beethoven primary among them) was pushed hard by the NS Cultural Community (NS Kulturgemeinde) and the Reich Music Chamber (Reichsmusikammer) in an effort to associate those composers with the National Socialist party. Signs, no matter how convoluted their meaning became, were sought in the life and music of Beethoven which would imply that Beethoven would have supported at least the spirit of Hitler’s nationalist, militarist, and anticommunist directives. (Beethoven in German Politics; p. 145) The Nazified Beethoven image was so strong, his role as a National Socialist hero so defined (despite certain biological questions about his suitability as a Nazi hero), that his music eventually became a part of the rituals and practices of the Third Reich.

While it is strange that the Third Reich did not immediately embrace Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the role it eventually played is not surprising at all. Initially, the Ninth suffered from holdover sentiment from the Weimar era. The very real expression of the idea of all men becoming brothers had been championed by what Nazi radio officials called “political-republicans”; this idea also did not sit well with party ideology. (Beethoven in German Politics; p. 146) Of course, as soon as the Nazi party had a firm control of all aspects of German culture, many considered Hitler’s Germany to be much closer to achieving the dream of the Ninth than the previous republic had been.

From a cultural standpoint, Germany found a not wholly unique interpretation within the Ninth Symphony which, I believe, was independent of the National Socialist interpretation of the piece. An article in the then state-controlled Die Musik from 1938 had this to say: “Every German able to listen to and explain musical experience profoundly… will run up against something in the Ninth Symphony that is perhaps best described as a ‘sense of the homeland’: the individual feels secure, as if ‘at home.’ He feels warmly surrounded by old friends, …because something of the blood and race of our very nature lives in it.” (Beethoven in German Politics; p. 152) As the composer had intentions of expressing brotherhood and community within his piece and the text which he set to further explicate that sentiment, this symphony is not only indicative of the style, period, and environment it was written in; it is also a prime example of base emotional communication regardless of any political interpretation projected upon it. Beethoven’s role as a national hero with Nazi Germany was solid and his music was championed by the Nazi party as every ruling body of government in Germany has championed it since the composer’s life and death.

A critical listening of this recording is almost impossible to separate from its cultural importance, as I chose a performance of the Ninth conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler at the re-opening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951. Furtwangler was what some call a non-political patriot – strong and steadfast in his love for Germany while not necessarily supporting the government in power at any given time. He never joined the National Socialist party (as Herbert Von Karajan did) but then again he never left Germany, either. (Institute for Historical Review; http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v17/v17n3p-2_Charles.html)

What can one say, critically, of this music? The performance is obviously emotionally charged, and Furtwangler wrangles chaos and order, dischord and consonance capably if not masterfully. The French horn section seems to have some problems on the whole, but the level of musicianship here is delightful (at times even daunting) otherwise.

As opposed to music as a political tool being forced upon people and celebrated by ruling parties, in other instances it is seen as a societal danger or used as a more economic political tool instead. Such is the case in South Korea, who currently is at odds with Japan over the history these two countries share. From 1910, Korea was colonially dominated by Japan; during this time, the Korean identity as a whole was almost obliterated by Japanese policy. Koreans had to learn Japanese and were forced to adopt Japanese names. Korean citizenry was often used as slave labor, and Korean women were forced to act as prostitutes to the Japanese military. Despite the fact that this hasn’t been going on for more than fifty years, there are still strong feelings of resentment and mistrust towards Japan within Korean society. (BBC; http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/asia-pacific/newsid_1268000/1268800.stm)

Since then, Korean governmental systems have stoked this fire by preventing the import of all Japanese artistic materials. Chief among these is music, as the South Korean citizenry has developed a desire and a taste for Japanese pop music, colloquially known as J-Pop. Owing to the lift of the ban on live Japanese musical performances by the South Korean government in June 2000, J-Pop group Chage & Aska performed to a crowd of 10,000 fans in Seoul’s Olympic Memorial Park in August 2000. Despite the obvious popularity of Japanese music in Korea, the sale of CDs and the broadcast of Japanese music on Korean radio and TV are still currently prohibited. At governmental conferences held in 1998 where Seoul and Tokyo worked towards a declaration declaring strong bilateral ties, South Korea had been given a reason to lessen its restriction on Japanese cultural imports. Recently however, Japanese textbooks omitting the more brutal facts about Japan’s colonization of Korea were approved for publication and distribution to Japanese schools, and Seoul responded by once again tightening the restrictions.

An example of the music banned by South Korea, Chage & Aska’s “Say Yes” seems entirely harmless. It is poppy and upbeat. It utilizes standard pop song 16 measure form and tonal harmony. There aren’t even aspects of traditional Japanese music within the harmonic or melodic arrangement: it, like most J-Pop, sounds entirely western. The production even sounds western, although this is irrelevant as many music production and engineering tools are made in Japan. The lyrics of this particular song are indicative of all of the lyrics of all of their songs, dealing primarily with romance:

Without worrying, Say yes, without being perplexed I am in love, this is how it feels to be in love The touch of love does not go out, the feel of love does not go out Say you love me, Say yes, without being perplexed (Chage & Aska Home Page, http://square.umin.ac.jp/yokomd/ca/)

It is of widely held opinion that there is nothing of propaganda within this music, both specifically and as a genre; but if this is the case, why is it, along with so many other latent, harmless examples of J-Pop, being so stringently denied access to South Korean citizens? I believe the reason here is one both of political and economic principle. (Asia Week; http://www.asiaweek.com/asiaweek/magazine/nations/0,8782,168208,00.html)

South Korea’s deep resentment stems from their colonization by Japan from 1910-1945 and the brutal treatment they received therein. The reasoning for not allowing cultural imports of any kind in the past is patriotic in nature – basically, Korea does not like how Japan treated them and since Japan has not made an effort to apologize, Korea wants nothing to do with them. However, since Korea now allows live performances and yet still bans commercial sale and broadcast of the music, I believe the motivation is also economic, at least in principle – while the artist makes money from live performance, Japanese business makes money from record sales and broadcasts, and hence that medium is banned, in an effort to prevent any of South Korea’s money being sent to Japanese businesses, no matter how benign. As an interesting footnote, Japan is essentially unconcerned with Korea’s practices concerning Japanese art and music, with Korea’s opinion of Japan in general. Also, economists and business leaders from both Japan and South Korea have stated publicly they have seen no difference in business relations between South Korea and Japan. (Asia Week; Mistook Murakami)

In summary, most governments throughout history have used art and music as a political tool, either through censorship, embargo, encouragement, funding, or a combination of these and countless other methods. Many artists cringe to think of governmental involvement in their work at all, while others view their art as a vehicle of contention, discourse, and social change. It was German playwright Bertolt Brecht who wrote, “Art is not a mirror that reflects society but the hammer that forges it.” Perhaps if artists and musicians took a more active interest in what role their music plays in politics, the role of music within social consciousness would become more readily defined in our future.

Chage & Aska: “Say Yes.” MTV Unplugged Live. Lyrics. Aska Ryo

Beethoven, Ludwig Van. Great Recordings Of The Century - Beethoven: Symphony no 9 / Furtwangler, Schwarzkopf Perf. Wilhelm Furtwangler, Otto Edelmen, Hans Hopf, et al.


Lockard, Craig A. Dance Of Life. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998.

Dennis, David B. Beethoven in German Politics, 1870 – 1989. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1996.


Charles, Anthony. “Wilhelm Furtwangler and Music in the Third Reich.” Institute for Historical Review http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v17/v17n3p-2_Charles.html

Murakami, Mutsuro. “Lessons Unlearned.” Asia Week. http://www.asiaweek.com/asiaweek/magazine/nations/0,8782,168208,00.html

Powers, David. “Japan and South Korea’s troubled relations.” BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/asia-pacific/newsid_1268000/1268800.stm

Omoto, Yoko. “Chage & Aska Home Page.” http://square.umin.ac.jp/yokomd/ca/

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