Protest, be it peaceful or not, is nothing new to history. And music has always had a place within political protest movements. Here is a look at some of the times classical music has acted as a rallying cry.
Reports of the political significance of The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco may be a bit contrived – stories of the chorus spontaneously breaking out at key historical moments have been found later to be actually carefully organized, as per music historian Roger Parker’s research.
But as the crowd sings it while marching down the street, does being planned make it any less meaningful in the moment? When the opera premiered Italy was under foreign domination, leading many scholars to believe that the chorus was a rallying cry for freedom. Especially a line from the middle of the piece – “O mia patria, si bella e perduta” (“O my country, so beautiful and lost”). But perhaps this is wishful thinking on the part of historians sympathizing with the Risorgimento movement.
Personally Verdi was deep in the middle of personal tragedy. His wife and son had died, and the composer was ready to leave the music business behind, but he was still contracted to La Scala for one more opera. When he first opened the libretto, it was right to the chorus’s opening words “Va pensiero, sull’alli dorate” (“Fly, thoughts, on golden wings”). In hindsight, Verdi described Nabucco as the moment that he became a fully realized opera composer. And it was much later that the country, in need of a unifying figure, chose a favorite composer to be the “bard of the Risorgimento.”
The most widespread wave of European revolution in modern history occurred in 1848, as one by one 50 countries experienced upheaval and monarchies toppled like dominoes in favor of democracy. The period, known as the Springtime of the Peoples, was heartily embraced by intellectuals such as the poet George Sand, who was also the lover of composer Frederic Chopin.
Upon hearing Chopin’s Polonaise Sand was inspired, and declared in a letter to the composer that the piece was “un symbole héroïque!” (“a heroic symbol!”). While Chopin himself rarely attached descriptive names to his pieces, he did consent to the piece being nicknamed “Heroic.”
At the outset of WWII, when Poland was invaded, Polskie Radio broadcast the piece daily as a show of nationalism to rally the people together. This recording features Wladislaw Szpilman, the pianist whose story of survival during the Holocaust is told in the Oscar-winning film The Pianist.
Between the 1880s and the 1960s nearly 3,500 black Americans were lynched, according to the Tuskegee Institute. Musical responses to these occurrences are rare – it’s a tough subject to approach. While Strange Fruit, sung by Billie Holiday, is a famous example. Another is William Grant Still’s oratorio And They Lynched Him On A Tree, with words by Katherine Garrison Chapin. It is scored, for orchestra with two choirs – a white choir that represents an angry mob, and a black choir that portrays the victim’s mourners.
The work elicits such a powerful emotional response from the audience that the piece has been performed less than 30 times since its premiere. While the two choirs play their expected roles in the first half of the piece, they come together in the second half – not for a display of unity, but rather with words of warning for the future. Even as Still completed the piece, an anti-lynching bill had been able to pass in the House of Representatives, but had failed in the Senate.
Composer Olivier Messiaen was 31 years old when he was captured by German soldiers near the beginning of World War II. He was interred at a German camp in Görlitz (now part of Poland), where he was able to become friends with several other musicians in the camp – a clarinetist, violinist, and cellist. Armed with a small pencil and paper from a sympathetic guard, he added himself to the group as a pianist. Prisoners and guards pooled their money to purchase a cello.
Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) premiered in 1941, outside in the rain for an audience of soldiers and prisoners together. Later, the guard (Carl-Albert Brüll) forged a stamp from a potato to secure the musicians’ release.
The piece takes its title from the biblical Book of Revelations:
“And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer”
At the same time that Messiaen was a prisoner, the city of Leningrad was under siege. During this time Dmitri Shostakovich’s longest symphony, his seventh, premiered under circumstances that the word “dire” would not even begin to describe.
The first movement was completed well before the German invasion, and the piece was already titled the “Leningrad” Symphony. And the Leningrad Symphony orchestra had planned the premiere for the 1941-42 season. The piece makes clear references to war and invasion – even with programmatic titles originally given to each movement. Given the fraught nature of Russian politics, Shostakovich was never able to give a clear answer as to whether the frightening forces were internal (Stalin) or external (Hitler).
Two weeks before the planned premiere, Shostakovich took stock of what he had composed, and realized the piece demanded much more work. By the time he made his mind up to cut his losses and evacuate the city during Germany’s invasion, it was too late. Rail lines had been cut. He completed the second movement between sprints from bomb shelter to bomb shelter. Two hours after he reached that milestone, he called in to Radio Leningrad to say so – a show of defiance in which he said, “life is proceeding normally.”
Once he finished the full piece, it took time to set up a premiere within the city of Leningrad itself. The only orchestra remaining was 15 members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra – the rest of the group having starved or entered the fighting. Apocryphally, at least one member of the pickup orchestra died of hunger during rehearsal. And on August 9, 1942, as Hitler dined at the Astoria Hotel to celebrate the fall of Leningrad, Soviet armies lobbed thousands of shells at German forces to quiet them so that everyone in the city could hear loudspeakers throughout town broadcast the radio premiere of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.
In 1968 composer Luciano Berio was so moved by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that within that same year he wrote a piece in memoriam. While Dr. King was known for his oratory, Berio is known for his nontraditional use of words – often incorporating shouting and whispering into the music rather than singing. In the case of O King, he meditates on just the civil rights leader’s last name. The composer has not said much more about the meaning behind this usage, but it does leave much to the listener’s imagination. A word that has for so long meant monarch, and leader, a reflection of a pastor lost to the world in the height of his own activism.
In 1964, following the Little Fruit Stand Riot in Harlem, six black youths were arrested for the murder of Hungarian refugee Margit Sugar. Of this group, known as the Harlem Six, only one was actually involved, and the lead witness is now thought to be the actual perpetrator. Activist Truman Nelson presented 70 hours of tape to composer Steve Reich and requested a sound collage for a benefit for the representation of the accused. Of that 70 hours, Reich used only four seconds.
Daniel Hamm was neither the murderer nor the accomplice. He also wasn’t visibly bleeding. And after the group had been processed, only those whose injuries could be seen by guards were being offered medical attention. So, Hamm broke open the bruise on his leg so that he would start bleeding as the only way to prove he had been beaten while he was in jail. Reich recorded these four seconds to two channels that run at different speeds. Starting together, then phasing out of sync, and eventually coming back together.
¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido! was written by Chilean songwriter Sergio Ortega three months before Salvador Allende was displaced by a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. It became the song of resistance through that upheaval, and has lasted as a chant of protest to this day. Two years later Ortega’s friend, composer Frederic Rzewski, began creating a set of variations for piano with the song as his theme.
The 36 variations that make up The People United Will Never Be Defeated! are grouped into six sets of six, with a more broad development happening throughout. The pianist engages in increasingly wild extended techniques – whistling, slamming the lid, and shouting. Italian protest song Banderia Rosa appears, as does the antifascist song Solidaritätslied by Hanns Eisler – recognizing Italians who opened their doors to Chilean refugees, and the continued fight against fascism.
The piece challenges the pianist technically for over an hour before requiring at least six minutes of improvisation – literally pulling the pianist to the brink of exhaustion before leaving them alone to come up with something new. After which, like in Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the theme returns, and the movement continues.
Composer Catherine Likhuta describes 2014’s invasion of Ukraine as the work of the country’s ultimate “bad neighbor.” In her piece of the same name, the music portrays fights, arguments, and dialogues – especially from the two horn soloists. With Ukranian folk modes and dance forms, she also found herself embracing her national heritage while composing a call for freedom and peace. Likhuta has said that the piece was commissioned as the invasion started, but then postponed. But by the time she picked up Bad Neighbors again in 2017, she was surprised that the conflict still raged on.
Composer Joel Thompson was inspired by Haydn when he took on the task of composing a response to police brutality. Josef Haydn had set the Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross for a Good Friday service in 1786. Thompson followed the structure of Haydn’s piece, substituting the last words of unarmed black men as they were killed in police confrontations – taking careful attention to the humanity in the story of each of these men.
The movements are as follows:
1. Kenneth Chamberlain
“Officers why do you have your guns out?”
2. Trayvon Martin
“What are you following me for?”
3. Amadou Diallo
“Mom, I’m going to college.”
4. Michael Brown
“I don’t have a gun! STOP!”
5. Oscar Grant
“You shot me!”
6. John Crawford
“It’s not real”
7. Eric Garner
“I can’t breathe.”
When asked if the piece contains hope, Thompson admitted that he didn’t think it did at first. Knowing that one piece of music can’t solve the world’s problems, he does now see that it can bring understanding, and in that there is a light of hope.
For coverage of this weekend’s protests in Nashville, tune into our sister station WPLN, who will also be carrying NPR’s national coverage of these events. Meanwhile, 91Classical will continue to provide our handpicked playlist of classical music.