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Cultural Exchange: The diplomatic view of classical music
State Department cables released by WikiLeaks offer sometimes-vivid glimpses into cultural diplomacy involving musical performances abroad.
September 18, 2011Two recent and seemingly unrelated events, the release of 250,000 unredacted State Department cables written between 1966 and 2011 via WikiLeaks and the pro-Palestinian protests at the Israel Philharmonic concert in London, got us thinking: How closely entwined are politics and classical music in diplomatic circles?
A few weeks ago WikiLeaks published cables sent by American diplomats who were reporting back to the government on events and people of interest to the United States. The reports are incredibly detailed (we can now confirm that, yes, the president of Turkmenistan did get two extra pineapples on his fruit plate in 1997), which can make for a tedious read.
Put a few classical music keywords in the search box, however, and nuclear-weapon panic gives way to the curious mixture of social chess, pageantry theater and "Fawlty Towers" that is cultural diplomacy.
If the reporting diplomat happens to be a good writer, the extra detail creates a vivid and at times extremely entertaining picture.
Classical music is mentioned most often when the diplomat is discussing an individual's openness to Western culture, his level of sophistication and the cultural health of a region in transition.
It is surprising to discover how classical music performances are used to introduce foreign audiences to American culture. An explanation comes from pianist Michael Sheppard, who won a classical fellowship with the American Pianists Assn. in 2003. The prize included a State Department-sponsored tour of Sri Lanka, Bahrain and Syria, which led to Sheppard's name showing up in a cable.
"The State Department probably uses classical music because there aren't words attached it," he said. "It's hard to be inflammatory when you're just playing piano pieces."
Reading the cables, it seems these concerts are more about what the music represents than the performance. Explained Sheppard, "Music can be a propaganda tool for sure, but I don't think the State Department is thinking, 'Let's use music to get [the audience] to like the U.S.' I'm not trying to push a political agenda at all. Music doesn't have anything to do with the little boundaries that we make."
What follows are excerpts selected to give a glimpse into diplomatic life and the various ways classical music fits in.
Musician in high-ranking post, Belmopan, Belize, 2008
"Belize's new Attorney General and Foreign Minister Wilfred Elrington plays the tuba, as did his father. Other siblings and his children also play instruments as well. He described his weekly band practice as something he lives for."