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Classical Music Responds to the Times

silhouette of individual person raising his or her fist in the air
Miguel Bruna
power salute

This month, as we exercise the voting rights inherent to democracy, music can be a safe haven from the rough and tumble of election rhetoric. But some composers have engaged with the important issues and circumstances of their times to write great music. Here are some works I've found to be especially powerful.

Dame Ethel Smyth’s “March of the Women” was written as an anthem for the suffragettes. Changing society is a slow process, and the idea that women could ever be trusted with the vote was alarming, if not outright preposterous. Smyth’s piece was described by a suffragette’s newspaper as both a “hymn and a call to battle.”

Dame Smyth was sentenced to two months in jail for breaking a window. The most memorable performance of her anthem has to be the one she herself conducted of her fellow inmates while leaning out of her cell window, waving her toothbrush.

The Russian occupation of Finland during the late 1800s did not go over well with Finland’s people who were at great military disadvantage to fight against it. But there are many ways to call people to unite, including through music. Finland’s great musical son, Jean Sibelius, wrote a suite of seven pieces as part of a concert that showed important moments in Finland’s history.

Any anti-Russian suggestion would have been met with swift and strong censorship, so the seventh and final tone poem in the suite, which we know today as “Finlandia,” had to be called by a different, more acceptable name. “Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Finnish Spring,” and “A Scandinavian Choral March” were two of the names it was performed under. Hear how Sibelius sets the dark mood right at the start to represent the oppression under which his people were living. While many have cited the calmer hymn towards the end as a traditional folk tune, it was actually a creation of Sibelius’ in his attempt to give hope to his fellow Finns.

“Finlandia” today is considered by many Finns to be the unofficial national anthem of Finland.

The German composer Beethoven was inspired by the stories coming out of France of the people’s uprisings against their monarchy, and their rallying cry, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” He was so impressed by their leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, that he dedicated his Symphony No. 3 to Bonaparte as he wrote it in 1803-04. That is, until Beethoven’s secretary broke the news that Bonaparte had proclaimed himself Emperor of France.

Beethoven was described as flying into a rage when he heard that, and scratched out the dedication with such force that he put a hole in the page, exclaiming, “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 own ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!” The title was changed to the “Sinfonia Eroica,” or Heroic Symphony.

Here’s the whole glorious piece, with Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

Chopin wrote 18 Polonaises in all, but the one considered most famous today is his Op. 40, No. 1. Chopin didn’t care much for nicknames for his pieces, but his publisher couldn’t resist calling this one the “Military,” when it was published in 1840. Musicologists have made a connection between the two Opus 40 Polonaises and Chopin's restlessness about his native Poland's long history of being oppressed by other invading countries. The 19th century pianist Anton Rubinstein described the “Military” as Chopin’s depiction of “Poland’s greatness” as a nod to his homeland. Here’s Maurizio Pollini.

This 19th century piece played an important psychological role for the Polish people a century later. At the outset of the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Polskie Radio, the national radio service in Poland, broadcast this piece every day. It was understood as being both a nationalistic protest and as a morale boost to rally the Polish people.

Shortly after France entered World War II, 31-year-old composer Olivier Messiaen was captured and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. Three other professional musicians were among his fellow prisoners, and Messiaen wrote music for them, using a borrowed pencil and paper from a sympathetic music-loving guard. That trio became the “Intermede” for his Quartet for the End of Time. It was premiered at the prison camp in front of 400 prisoners and guards. Can you imagine the bravery of Messiaen to have a piece performed at this Nazi camp with this title?

He wrote that the description of the end of time found in the Bible’s Book of Revelation was the inspiration for the piece: “...and the Angel, which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven. And swore by him that liveth for ever and ever...that there should be time no longer.”

Here is an all-star lineup of musicians: Pianist Inon Barnatan, clarinetist Anthony McGill, cellist Carter Brey and violinist Alan Gilbert.

In describing that prison camp premiere, Messiaen said “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.”

CODA: In 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival hit the charts with “Fortunate Son.” It was not only a protest of the Vietnam War, it was also a condemnation of America’s “the haves and have nots society.” Not classical music, but definitely a late 20th century offspring. This new video by CCR includes the lyrics.

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.