Music as Political Commitment: The Reception of Pablo Casals in Taiwan before the 1970s

Written by Min-Erh Wang.

Image credit: bernie fuchs – portrait of pablo casals, 1971 by darwin.wins/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Intersection of Musicology and Taiwan Studies

Historical musicologists focus on studying Western classical music written by Western or Western-trained composers, while ethnomusicologists primarily concentrate on traditional and vernacular music research. Against this background, music scholars in Taiwan tend to pay attention to the musical works and composers or the cultures of traditional genres, such as nanguan and the music of aboriginal people, while leaving the reception of Western classical music overlooked. However, from the late nineteenth century onwards, Western classical music has deeply rooted in Taiwan as well as other East Asian countries as part of the modernisation agenda. Furthermore, during the Cold War, Western classical music was adopted by both the US and Soviet Russia to disseminate their influence over Third World countries. Within this context, this essay explores the reception of Western classical music. Moreover, it offers another perspective in examining Taiwan’s modern history. It raises the reception of Pablo Casals as a case study to demonstrate how the appreciation of Western classical music became a political commitment in Taiwan in the early Cold War.

Why Casals?

Pablo Casals (1876-1973), the Spanish cellist and musical humanitarian, is generally understood as one of the most influential musicians and a musical humanitarian of the twentieth century. In addition to his musical achievements, Casals was narrated as a cultural hero through his opposition to the Franco regime and life-long advocacy of freedom in English language literature. Casals’ humanitarian contributions were widely acknowledged in Western countries as he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1956 and was awarded a UN Peace Medal in 1971. Compared with other musicians in the same generation, Pablo Casals is unique for two reasons. Firstly, Casals’ refusal to perform for Hitler due to his anti-Fascist stance during the Second World War earned him prestige while his main chamber music partners, Jacques Thibaud and Alfred Cortot, chose to play for Vichy France. The political stance then functioned as the basis of Casals’ humanitarian contribution in the post-war political climate. Secondly, Casals has a versatile discography, which distinguishes him from his contemporaries. His repertoire covered nearly all the masterpieces for the cello from the Baroque period to the Romantic period, including concertos by Haydn, Boccherini, Schumann, Dvořák, and Elgar; cello sonatas by Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms; and the first complete cycle of the Bach cello suites. All these recordings are re-issued and widely available until the present day, serving as the basis for East Asian listeners to appreciate his performance.

The Reception of Casals in Taiwan

The reception of Casals in Taiwan should be examined within the context of domestic and global politics. Although Casals was an established musical figure in Euro-American countries in the pre-war era, his reputation gained a foothold in Taiwan in the 1950s. The appreciation of Casals in Taiwan relied on written materials rather than his musical performances since his recordings were not extensively available. The understanding of Casals’ musicality was also superficial since critical discussions of his musical achievements were hardly found in existing materials. Therefore, presenting Casals to a Taiwanese readership was as much a political process as a musical one. The earliest Taiwanese documentation on Casals appeared in the 1950s. A similar pattern of presentation can be identified in those articles as the writers tend to begin with Casals’ reputation in the Western world. Stemming from this point, the following texts emphasised his commitment to freedom, democracy, and anti-communism. However, Taiwanese writers misinterpreted Casals’ political stance by connecting his anti-Franco attitude with anti-communism. This disinformation should be criticised within the context of the domestic politics of the Nationalist regime.

On the one hand, to legitimise its authority in Taiwan and its fight against the Chinese Communist Party, the KMT promoted anti-communism by organising literary awards in the early 1950s. Although the introductory writings on Casals were not literary works, the authors would need to comply with the government protocols. On the other hand, during the martial law period, while Taiwan was controlled entirely and ruled under Chiang Kaishek, the KMT regime claimed it was a democratic country and a partner of the free world. Meanwhile, both Chiang Kaishek and Franco were far-right dictators supported by the US as the frontier of anti-communism. This fact makes the Taiwanese materials, which emphasise Casals’ commitment to democracy, liberty, and human rights, satirical, especially in the given context that Taiwan was governed by martial law during the 1950s. Although Casals’ anti-Franco stance was also presented in the articles, the similarities between General Franco and Chiang Kaishek did not attract attention from Taiwanese readers. Therefore, the introduction of Casals was a way for the KMT to cover its democratic failure and its military defeat in the Chinese Civil War at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. Within the global Cold War politics, the reception of Casals was a political commitment in which Taiwan shared the same cultural values as the US.

Revisiting the Intersection of Musicology and Taiwan Studies

Understanding Western classical music in Taiwan is restricted mainly by the European paradigm of the nineteenth century, which assumes that musical compositions are beyond time and space. However, this essay has demonstrated how domestic and international politics influence the representation of Western musical figures in a non-Western country. The case study of Casals’ reception suggests that musicology and Taiwan studies should not be considered two discrete research categories. On the one hand, to gain a clearer understanding of the modern history of Taiwan, the development of Western classical music should not be neglected by Taiwanese scholars. For musicologists, on the other hand, Taiwan’s case could offer a perspective to contest Western classical music’s supposed universality.

Min-Erh Wang is a DPhil Candidate in Musicology supervised by Prof Daniel Grimley, specialising in music, postcolonialism and global Cold War politics.

This article was published as part of EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan special issue. All articles in the special issue can be found here.

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