A blog by Sarah Schmidt.
Facts and figures allow us to compartmentalize our understanding and relation to acts of evil. By summarizing horrific and complicated events into an accessible narrative of evil, we provide a connotation of absolutism (Romig, 2012). It removes the need or ability to truly understand, let alone acknowledge or relate to, the complex realities (and histories) of those involved in genocide and other evil acts.
Evil continues to serve as a broad embodiment of historical and ongoing atrocities, individuals, and groups. When used as a catchall descriptor amongst the facts and figures framed as historical narrative, there is a complicit ignorance to soothe our existential fears and justifies an avoidance in critically identifying cause or responsibility (van Kessel, 2018). The use of evil as a blanket term Romig (2012) suggests reflects more on those who readily rely on it than on whom or where it is directed.
“Evil” has become the word we apply to perpetrators who we’re both unable and unwilling to do anything to repair, and for whom all of our mechanisms of justice seem unequal: it describes the limits of what malevolence we’re able to bear. In the end, it’s a word that says more about the helplessness of the accuser than it does the transgressor. (para. 11)Romig, 2012
This sense of helplessness and thoughtless complicity are two concepts that van Kessel (2018) seeks to address when discussing genocide and evil with learners by incorporating “three interrelated strategies” to prevent similar or different evils in the future (p. 165). The first strategy amalgamates Arendt’s Banality of Evil Theory with Becker’s Terror Management Theory. van Kessel (2018) uses the combined theories to illustrate how intentional and unintentional ordinary acts of evil are influenced when a person or a group’s existential fears are challenged. This strategy enables learners the opportunity to unpack the layers of how, what, and why acts of evil occur and to contemplate the ramifications. The second strategy, van Kessel suggests, is “teaching disobedience” (p. 166). She encourages learners to challenge authoritative narratives that define understandings and obedience. This includes the importance of a development and application of critical thinking. Facilitating the growth of critical thinking skills offers learners the ability to thoughtfully protest the blind acceptance of directives and perspectives, whether issued by a teacher or government authority (Ng-A-Fook, 2020). van Kessel’s (2018) third strategy is “expanding fetishized perception” (p. 167). In this approach, she urges learners to resist resorting to reductively qualifying everything and everyone as ‘evil’ as a simplified means to justify actions (Romig, 2012) or a challenging worldview. Instead, the emphasis is placed on the importance of acknowledging there are different worldviews and narratives that comprise our society on a local, national, and world scale. Instead of dismissing contradictory perspectives, learners are encouraged to acknowledge and engage positively with the intention of reducing future conflicts (van Kessel, 2018; Ng-A-Fook, 2020).
In response to the bombardment of historical facts and figures that quantified and qualified evil in school, from an early age, I have often relied on music as a medium to gather a deeper understanding. Music has the ability to reveal perspectives and experiences hidden or overlooked within historical and current events. The melodies, harmonies, and dissonance interwoven with lyrics or amongst instrumental voices can provide contextual transcendence of the facts and figures that dominate the documented narratives. Whether written 500 or 5 years ago, nuances of experience and perspectives can be illustrated with dissonance amongst voices (instrumental and/or vocal), rhythmic repetition of lyrics, melodic motifs, or a refusal for tonal resolve. Using music as a medium affords us pedagogical and curricular possibilities to reconsider and challenge dominant narratives of history.
I found myself returning to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 “Babi Yar” to reflect and process van Kessel’s (2018) question: “How might we teach about genocide with a view toward a less violent future” (p. 160)? As I listened to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2020 live recording of “Babi Yar,” I revisited the story of Shostakovich’s compositional return to musical civil disobedience by placing a spotlight on the perpetuation of evil and suppression of voices.
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar. The trees look ominous, like judges. Here all things scream silently, and, baring my head, slowly I feel myself turning grey. And I myself am one massive, soundless scream above the thousand thousand buried here. (Yevtushenko, 1961/2005)
Shostakovich’s compositions influenced me greatly in my undergraduate music studies, in particular his seventh and thirteenth symphonies. They continue to represent a willingness to denounce authoritarian narratives and silencing of voices compositionally, despite living as an artist. The seventh symphony is a sombre representation of the trauma and desperate perseverance experienced by the Russian people during World War Two. Whereas, in setting five poems of dissent by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the thirteenth symphony is an “anguished protest against the centuries-old burden of anti-Semitism in Russia and a heroic stand against state-sponsored oppression of human rights” (Shiman & Fernekes, 1999, p. 53). To analyze the layers in Shostakovich’s compositions is also to recognize the complexity of living under Soviet ruling. As a composer and recognized voice (when in favour) in Soviet Russia, Shostakovich used music to express national pride, a dedication to the people of the Soviet Union, but also to urge ordinary conscious disobedience in the face of state dominated thoughtlessness.
O my Russian people! I know you are international to the core. But those with unclean hands have often made a jingle of your purest name. I know the goodness of my land. How vile these antisemites— without a qualm they pompously called themselves the Union of the Russian People! (Yevtushenko, 1961/2005)
Prior to Shostakovich’s composition and subsequent premiere of Symphony No. 13, concerns were expressed that his music had succumbed to the Soviet rhetoric (Elphick, 2017). Following the premiere of his thirteenth symphony, Shostakovich was once again revered for returning to his previous defiant voice by his critics. However, this sentiment was not shared by the Soviet Party. Prior to the premiere, Soviet officials learned that the symphony included textual and musical accusation of Soviet anti-Semitism. Under threat of cancellation, Yevtushenko substituted text in the Babi Yar poem for a more accepted Soviet narrative, as directed. However, Shostakovich did not comply. And, the symphony experienced the consequences for his civil disobedience. The original text of Babi Yar was not yet again heard in Soviet Union until the 1980’s (Peterson, 2011). While not outright banned, future performances were so limited that the symphonic message may have experienced a worse fate by essentially being reduced to the same silence it was denouncing.
Each of the five movements, “Babi Yar,” “Humour,” “In the Store,” “Fears,” “Careers,” in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 illustrate concepts and approaches related to van Kessel’s suggested three strategies in considering instances of evil and how to prevent future perpetuation. The first movement exemplifies Shostakovich’s use of various concepts that van Kessel advocates for in the three strategies to recognize and explore varied conceptualizations of evil.
No monument stands over Babi Yar. A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid. (Yevtushenko, 1961/2005)
From the beginning of the first movement, Shostakovich declares a need for a contrasting voice to the state narrative and denounces the never-ending violence by ordinary individuals against the Jewish people by using Yevtushenko’s (1961/2005) text “No monument stands over Babi Yar.” The first movement emphasizes a sense of somber immediacy for recognizing the intensive evil (van Kessel, 2018) conducted at Babi Yar, the site of the 1941 Nazi massacre of 33,000 Jewish people near Kiev. An emphasis on, what van Kessel (2018) identifies as extensive evil is conveyed through the denouncement of continual anti-Semitic sentiment and the unwillingness to erect a monument to the mass murder that occurred on Soviet soil. Further condemnation is satirized using a word painting set to the remainder of Yevtushenko’s poem to highlight additional events of anti-Semitism, including a Russian pogrom, a 1941 French trial enveloped in anti-Semitism, and the story of Anne Frank. Rather than placing emphasis on one evil act, Shostakovich further alludes that everyone are culprits in perpetuating anti-Semitism, including all Soviets by unchallenging the narrative that a monument would overshadow all the deaths of Soviets people at the hands of the Nazis.
The 'Internationale,' let it thunder when the last antisemite on earth is buried for ever. In my blood there is no Jewish blood. In their callous rage, all antisemites must hate me now as a Jew. For that reason I am a true Russian! (Yevtushenko, 1961/2005)
Throughout each movement, Shostakovich urges listeners to decompartmentalize associations of evil beyond the overt acts, individuals and groups and to consider their own responsibility in reactions. Although only the first movement was briefly explored, Shostakovich’s symphonic setting of Yevtuchenko’s poetry embodies required elements of van Kessel’s (2018) three strategies for comprehending and preventing future acts of evil. As a composer and a Russian, Shostakovich experienced suppression by the Soviet Party. Yet he intentionally composed music to critique and evoke change in listeners actions and beliefs by challenging the facts and figures of the surrounding societal narrative. van Kessel (2018; Ng-A-Fook, 2020) refers to the importance of including various mediums to provide learners opportunity for critical analysis. Perhaps, music can also be considered as a medium for deconstructing the nuanced conceptions of evil. For the interconnections between voices, instruments, and/or text can provide unique layers for analysis and understanding to provide a different contextualized opportunity discourse of understanding and awareness to work against perpetuation of humanly evil in the future.
Babi Yar Yevgeni Yevtushenko (1961/2005) No monument stands over Babi Yar. A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid. Today I am as old in years as all the Jewish people. Now I seem to be a Jew. Here I plod through ancient Egypt. Here I perish crucified on the cross, and to this day I bear the scars of nails. I seem to be Dreyfus. The Philistine is both informer and judge. I am behind bars. Beset on every side. Hounded, spat on, slandered. Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace stick their parasols into my face. I seem to be then a young boy in Byelostok. Blood runs, spilling over the floors. The barroom rabble-rousers give off a stench of vodka and onion. A boot kicks me aside, helpless. In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies. While they jeer and shout, 'Beat the Yids. Save Russia!' Some grain-marketer beats up my mother. O my Russian people! I know you are international to the core. But those with unclean hands have often made a jingle of your purest name. I know the goodness of my land. How vile these antisemites— without a qualm they pompously called themselves the Union of the Russian People! I seem to be Anne Frank transparent as a branch in April. And I love. And have no need of phrases. My need is that we gaze into each other. How little we can see or smell! We are denied the leaves, we are denied the sky. Yet we can do so much— tenderly embrace each other in a darkened room. They're coming here? Be not afraid. Those are the booming sounds of spring: spring is coming here. Come then to me. Quick, give me your lips. Are they smashing down the door? No, it's the ice breaking . . . The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar. The trees look ominous, like judges. Here all things scream silently, and, baring my head, slowly I feel myself turning grey. And I myself am one massive, soundless scream above the thousand thousand buried here. I am each old man here shot dead. I am every child here shot dead. Nothing in me shall ever forget! The 'Internationale,' let it thunder when the last antisemite on earth is buried for ever. In my blood there is no Jewish blood. In their callous rage, all antisemites must hate me now as a Jew. For that reason I am a true Russian!Today I am as old in years
Elphick, D. (2017, September 13). Decoding the music masterpieces: Shostakovich’s Babi Yar. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/decoding-the-music-masterpieces- shostakovichs-babi-yar-82819
MillersvilleU. (2010, April 5). Holocaust Conference at Millersville University: Yevgeni Yevtushenko recites Babi Yar [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/knf0PH42Br4
Ng-A-Fook, N. (Host). (2020, April 28). Episode 06: Cathryn van Kessel [Audio podcast episode]. In Fooknconversations. https://www.fooknconversation.com/podcast/episode-06-cathryn-van-kessel/
Romig, R. (2012, July 25). What do we mean by “evil”? The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-do-we-mean-by-evil
Shiman, D. A., & Fernekes, W. R. (1999). The Holocaust, human rights, and democratic citizenship education. Social Studies, 90(2), 53–62. https://www.doi.org/10.1080/00377999909602391
van Kessel, C. (2018). Banal and fetishized evil: Implicating ordinary folk in genocide education. Journal of International Social Studies, 8(2), 160-171.
Peterson, J. (2011). Iterations of Babi Yar. Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 46(4), 585–598.
Schostakovich, D. (2020). Shostakovich: Symphony no. 13 in b-flat minor, opus. 113 “Babi Yar” (Live) [Album recorded by Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Chorus, A. Tikhomyrov, & R. Muti]. CSO Resound. (Original work published 1962). https://open.spotify.com/album/7Guzk1XOV8BZ4KCYILZQCY?si=stQsC8tTQ-KIgJRtbcieig
Yevtushenko, Y. (1961/2005). Babi Yar. Aushwitz Inside the Nazi State. PBS. https://www-tc.pbs.org/auschwitz/learning/guides/reading1.4.pdf