As protests continued to be held in Nashville throughout the last week, several examples of classical protest music have been given the spotlight. When 91Classical published our own list of historic pieces, we knew the list was incomplete. Some members of our musical community, both here at home and across the country, suggested additional works that have moved them as well.
Undine Smith Moore: Before I’d Be A Slave
Chair of Musicology at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music Douglas Shadle suggested a piece by Undine Smith Moore called Before I’d Be A Slave. The first time he heard the piece, it left him speechless. Not a surprising reaction, as the broad chords crashing throughout the piece can be a shock. Smith Moore took the title from a freedom song called Oh Freedom!, often associated with the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. As sung by Odetta, and later Joan Baez at the March on Washington, the middle lyric of each stanza is “Before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave.” Shadle finds new meaning in Smith Moore’s music now, as it resonates with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Karim Al-Zand: The Prisoner
Sam Bergman is a violist in the Minnesota Orchestra, who saw the original article via Twitter. He replied with several additional suggestions, the most personal of which was The Prisoner by Karim Al-Zand. Bergman described it as “one of the most powerful works I’ve ever played.”
The work, which you can hear in full on Al-Zand’s website, tells the story of Adnan Latif, who was the ninth prisoner to die at Guatanamo Bay. According to Latif’s family he left home to seek medical care, though the US government claims he left for military training. Regardless, he was captured, along with many other Arab men, by bounty hunters along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. After being denied Habeas Corpus, and spending a decade filled with hunger strikes and suicide attempts at Guatanamo Bay, Latif was cleared for release, but remained in custody until he was found dead in his cell.
While Al-Zand’s own Middle Eastern heritage is a subject that appears in several of his pieces, in this case Adnan Latif’s letters were the main source of inspiration. Letters that detail horrible treatment at Guantanamo Bay and a descent into depression and madness, alongside poetry by Rilke, Al-Ma‘arri, Rūmī, and the Book of Psalms.
Frederic Rzewski: Coming Together
Percussionist Allen Otte pointed to another piece by Frederic Rzewski, in addition to the original list’s inclusion of The People United Will Never Be Defeated! Rzewski returned from performing and composing in Europe in 1971, the same year as the prison riot at Attica Correctional Facility. One of the 33 prisoners killed in the riot was Sam Melville, a draftsman who had been radicalized by apartheid when his job had sent him to South Africa.
Melville’s letters were later published, and Rzewski took the text of one letter in particular, to be read as-is, in Coming Together. Like many of Rzewski’s pieces, the orchestration is flexible. One player repeats bass line, as the rest of the ensemble follows along via written instructions, creating various modes of controlled yet unpredictable chaos. The narrator reads Melville’s letter in short fragments, creating the feeling that the words are being composed right there during the performance.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 3
Nashville Symphony Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero turned our attention to Beethoven’s sympathy with the French Revolution values of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Beethoven, only just beginning to accept his impending deafness, found inspiration in stories of uprisings in France at the time. The third symphony began with a dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte. As Guerrero points out, the bloom came off the rose pretty quickly, “when Napoleon crowned himself emperor [Beethoven] was so disgusted that he erased the name from the title page (with such anger that he ripped the page).”
“I was the first to bring him the news that Bonaparte had proclaimed himself emperor, whereupon he flew into a rage and cried out: ‘Is he too, then, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on the rights of man, and indulge only his ambition!'” – Beethoven’s student, Ferdinand Ries
As was originally intended by the composer, the piece tells the story of a remarkably heroic life. It began a whole new phase in Beethoven’s career, now known as his Heroic phase. While its frequent programming has made it a concert hall staple, the piece was a revolution in notes when it premiered; an aggressive political action, meant to challenge the listener’s view of the world.
Valerie Coleman: Phenomenal Women
The American Composer’s Forum lifted up the work of composer (and Louisville, Kentucky native) Valerie Coleman this week. Coleman often uses historical figures as a jumping off point for compositions. Phenomenal Women celebrates the efforts of women at overcoming adversity. The piece exists in two forms: one for the ensemble Coleman plays with, Imani Winds, and another for full orchestra. Coleman was inspired by Maya Angelou’s book Phenomenal Woman, which includes a poem of the same name.
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s sizeBut when I start to tell them,They think I’m telling lies.I say,It’s in the reach of my arms,The span of my hips,The stride of my step,The curl of my lips.I’m a womanPhenomenally.Phenomenal woman,That’s me.” – poem excerpt, Maya Angelou
Shelley Washington: Towers
Website I Care If You Listen shared an article from April of 2019, profiling a piece of music that explores the experience of being a person of color in academia. Shelley Washington does not shy away from her own experiences of isolation in the piece.
“Towers is for me, and for all those who reside in their own stronghold. Though we often feel confined to our own separate spires in our own separate kingdoms, I know that someday we’ll all be able to come down. Slowly but surely, we will all rise together.” – composer Shelley Washington
While academia as a whole experiences issues with inclusion and representation, classical music’s ivory towers are particularly divided still. Washington expresses hope that by being open about where our weaknesses lie, music as a whole we can work together to become a stronger field.
Reena Esmail: #metoo
91Classical Music Director Nina Cardona did not highlight one piece, but rather a whole album as an additional example. Chicago Sinfonietta’s Project W leaves little room for doubt in liner notes, written by Mei-Ann Chen:
“Welcome to our celebration. This is not just another album, this is a statement.”
The album includes a brand new piece by Indian-American composer Reena Esmail, titled #metoo. She had already begun working on a new piece when the movement suddenly hit the zeitgeist. The piece builds forward motion that comes to an abrupt stop— a silencing of all of the voices. Members of the ensemble reenter, singing, in order of the year they entered the orchestra. Their genuine voices working together to create a beautiful moment of humanity on the concert stage.
In celebration of tonight's panel discussion on "Project W: Works by Diverse Women Composers" Reena Esmail shares some deeply personal perspective on her moving contribution to the recording—a composition entitled "#metoo". We are so empowered by her message of inclusion, and hope to continue that momentum as we discuss the entirety of the disc tonight before our concert, "In Darkness We Rise". Join us at 6 p.m. tonight at Mandel Hall to hear the full story of this incredible project. To RSVP for our inspiring pre-concert discussion on gender equity in classical music, email email@example.comDon't have concert tickets yet? Buy them here: http://bit.ly/2us8BRG#equalrights #chisinfonietta #redefineclassical #classicalmusic #womeninmusic #musicianmonday #equality #timesup #equity #gender #women #composers #chicagosinfonietta #projectw
Posted by Chicago Sinfonietta on Monday, March 25, 2019
Billy Childs: Incident on Larpenteur Avenue
Cardona also pointed to a piece from 2018 by Billy Childs, based on the killing of Philando Castile. Childs, who in addition to composing is an in-demand pianist in the jazz world, describes writing the piece as an act of catharsis, allowing him to process his feelings of rage and sadness. The piece begins with unsettling, running 16th notes. Seven augmented chords including snap pizzicati on the violin mimic the seven gunshots that killed Castile. In the following adagio, a hymn-like piano line mimics life slipping away while the violin interrupts with anger. But, life continues, and the music comes to a recap of the opening, as recent history repeats itself elsewhere in the world.
Luigi Nono: Intolleranza
The piece attacks fascism, the atomic bomb, and segregation, ending with a biblical-style flood which wipes the world clean. Originally called Intolleranza 1960, Nono revised it a decade later as Intolleranza 1970, then eventually removed the date altogether, recognizing that the problems of the world will continue through the future.
Shades of Yale: Amen/We Shall Overcome
The song we know as We Shall Overcome has a complex history. While it bears similarity to a hymn by Charles Albert Tindley in 1900, the earliest record of the popular version is from a cigar workers’ strike in 1945. Zilphia Horton of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee included it in the People’s Songs Bulletin, and also famously taught the song to folk music legend Pete Seeger.
The song became an unofficial anthem of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and while the video version by Shades of Yale was published one month ago, before the killing of George Floyd, it has had a renewed poignancy in the wake of ongoing protests. But the power of We Shall Overcome has always been its ability to protest injustice, with a hopeful look toward a bright future.