Music – for many of us it plays an important role in our lives. We play it for festivities and for funerals. We find lyrics we can relate to and that speak to some of our innermost experiences and feelings. Years later, hearing a song can be extremely evocative of events, places, or people. Although it is created and performed by an artist or group of artists, we hear it and it becomes part of our lives and, in some cases, part of society. And yet what of the artists who give us this gift? How do they create a society that allows them to perform and express themselves?
Two recent films answer this question by chronicling different artists and musical genres. This Jurisculture post will discuss one film, Maestro, and the following post will discuss the other film, Song of Lahore. Maestro tells the story of master orchestra conductor Paavo Jarvi and, in the process, tells the story of orchestral society as a whole. Throughout the film, Maestro explores Jarvi’s personal history as the son of a world-renowned conductor from Estonia, who spent much of his youth in the Soviet Union due to his father’s work. As a child, Jarvi explains that he grew up listening to music and benefitted from the lessons his father gave to the family on music and on its importance in life and society.
This was emphasized to a younger Jarvi when his father refused to stop performing a song that the Soviet regime deemed subversive and was punished with quasi exile as a result. Despite this, his father continued to support such music and both he and young Jarvi understood the power of the music they performed as a source of motivation and support for social movements. Indeed, as was later demonstrated in Estonia’s “Singing Revolution” in which it broke free of Soviet control, music has the ability to reach across a number of social groups and create another society based on its lessons.
Following Jarvi’s path to the US after fleeing Soviet control, the film chronicles the rise of Jarvi as a young and talented conductor. It explores the Curtis Institute of Music, an elite school for highly talented musical artists, where another type of society is formed, this one of artists who have given their young lives to their art and to perfecting it. They create a common bond of dedication and love of music and their art in a way that might be difficult for the outside world to understand but that provides them with a sense of belonging and place. This, in turn, allows them to push themselves and to excel in order to create the music that comes to have such special meaning to society and to individuals the world over.
The idea of the experience of professional musicians as forming a society unto itself is further highlighted in Jarvi’s experience as the Artistic Director at the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. Unlike other orchestras, in which the musicians are employees, at Bremen the musicians who comprise the orchestra are the owners. This increases the sense of investment and attachment that the musicians have at the same time that it increases the pressure on them to perform at their best and to bring in funding on a consistent basis. It is both a benefit and a burden on the musicians – and particularly on Jarvi as the leader of the orchestra. In this way, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen serves as a microcosm of the realities faced by individuals and society – each must perform at its best in order to succeed and also to survive. In doing this, a close-knit family unit is formed, with musicians and staff members who could receive somewhat better benefits elsewhere staying with a group of people who love and support them.
At the same time, the struggle to balance the reality of this world with the reality of a personal world is demonstrated by Jarvi’s own need to balance his professional world with his commitment to his two young daughters. Throughout the film, Jarvi discusses this in terms of the sacrifices he has made for his career and, as his children begin to grow up, the professional sacrifices he is willing to make so that he can be an involved part of their lives.
In Maestro, the audience experiences more than the story of music and the enjoyment of hearing beautiful performances by leading artists in the world. The film exposes the reality of the music that is enjoyed by millions across the world, from the study needed to become an elite musician to the way that a world-class orchestra functions to the struggle involved in balancing the personal and professional lives of musicians. By exposing these struggles, Maestro highlights the ways in which classical music, a genre that some view as out-dated, in fact reflects the realties and struggles of modern society in the lives of the musicians who perform it as much as in the emotions it conveys and evokes.
Maestro brings to light the many forms of society that form around music and why those societies are necessary in order to create music that reaches listeners across the world. Maestro further highlights the role that audiences have in creating yet another society, one in which music is a unifying theme in itself and can act as a facilitator for other movements.