Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal



telling tales

music with a message

December 19, 2013

Music isn’t a curio that sits on a shelf, untouched by the world. Music’s sole purpose isn’t just to be pretty and entertaining. Music is part of the world, sometimes a reflection of the world as it is, in all of its imperfection. At times, music reflects an ideal vision of the world, as it should be. Sometimes it is a call to arms, a message for the dictators, a beacon of hope for the oppressed.

It is the nature of music as part of life, politics and human emotion that I have been thinking about since I heard the news of Nelson Mandela’s death. When I was about ten years old, I first heard the name Nelson Mandela in a song. It was a very upbeat, catchy song, with a simple chorus that was also the song’s name: “Free Nelson Mandela.” It was penned by Jerry Dammers and recorded by his band, The Specials, in 1984. The song charted in the UK and the US, and as a result, some people—like me—were suddenly made aware that Nelson Mandela existed. When the song was released, Mandela had already been in prison for two decades, and he wasn’t the household name he is today. The song became a rallying cry, however, and helped set positive actions in motion, including a concert for Nelson Mandela’s seventieth birthday in 1988, at Britain’s enormous Wembley Stadium.

In the 1980s, the general public became more aware of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, and music not only mentioned Mandela, but the South African policy of Apartheid as well. In 1985, Steven Van Zandt, guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, formed an organization called Artists United Against Apartheid. Van Zandt wrote a protest song called “Sun City,” which referred to a casino resort in South Africa a couple of hours outside of Johannesburg. The luxurious resort formed a stark contrast to the poverty of the surrounding area, and Van Zandt’s song—which ended up being sung by some of the music world’s greatest luminaries—promised that no one was going to perform at Sun City as long as Apartheid was policy in South Africa. Again, the catchiness of the tune brought the issue to a wide audience, and the involvement of artists like Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Ringo Starr, and Keith Richards, made the public sit up and take notice.

There are many musical tributes to Mandela and other musical protests against Apartheid, including the Broadway musical (and later film), Sarafina!. I saw this musical with my high school’s theater club in 1989, and at the time, I knew little about the Soweto riots that inspired Mbongeni Ngema’s play. Sarafina! helped to educate me, and it did so with dance and beautiful, lively music.

Music responding to politics is not a phenomenon that is exclusive to the twentieth century. Beethoven’s Third Symphony was originally titled Bonaparte. The composer was writing a tribute to a man he thought would be the champion of the poor and oppressed. When Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France, however, Beethoven changed the title and dedication of the piece, simply calling it “Eroica,” and describing it as a piece to the “memory” of a great man. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, of course, is more overt in its message. Beethoven set Friedrich Schiller’s An die Freude (Ode to Joy), a poem that speaks of universal brotherhood. There is some speculation that Schiller might have been a Freemason, which would not be surprising, considering it is a fraternal organization.

Mozart belonged to the Freemasons, and there are many of his works that surreptitiously incorporated masonic themes and ideas. His opera, The Magic Flute is probably the most often discussed example of this. With the knocking motif in the overture—perhaps suggesting the candidate for initiation into the Freemasons knocking on the door—to the use of keys and harmonies that refer to the number three (symbolic in the freemasons), there are many gestures that could suggest Freemasonry. In addition to these hidden messages, Mozart composed half a dozen works that were specifically and overtly connected to the Freemasons, like his song “Gesellenreisen,” which was to be sung when new journeymen Freemasons were initiated. Haydn was also a Freemason, and we might imagine that some of their ideas were in his mind when he was composing.

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Nabucco, has been cast as covert political commentary on the Italian Risorgimento, although the extent to which this is true has been called into question recently. There is no doubt, however, that “Va Pensiero,” one of the choruses from the opera, has taken on significance out of context. Because of the words that speak of a beautiful, idealized homeland, it has been thought of as a patriotic anthem. In 2009, Umberto Bossi, an Italian Senator suggested that “Va Pensiero” become the official national anthem of Italy. The current anthem, “Fratelli d’Italia (music by Michele Novaro and poetry by Goffredo Mameli) has been the provisional anthem since 1946, although both the poem and the music were written nearly a century before that. It’s a military march of sorts, while “Va Pensiero” is more melodic and tuneful. As a second generation Italian American, I’d support the switch, although in 2012 Italy finally made “Fratelli d’Italia” the official anthem, so Verdi will have to wait.

Although anti-war and protest songs make up a large part of political music, let’s not forget that music is often a tool of propagandists. Much of the popular music in 1940s America reflects the December 1941 entry of the US into World War II. “Remember Pearl Harbor,” recorded by bandleader Sammy Kaye, was one of the first songs to address the new role of the US as an active part of the conflict. It was followed by songs like “Let’s Put the Axe to the Axis” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” It didn’t take the armed forces long to realize that popular songs helped galvanize the war effort, and mass production of recordings continued unabated, despite a rationing of shellac, an important ingredient in the manufacture of recordings.

Politics and music often combine to cause controversy. John Adams’ opera, The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) is an example of such a controversial piece. Adams’ opera (libretto by Alice Goodman) dealt with the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achile Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front and the subsequent murder of passenger Leon Klinghoffer. Although Adams has been very vocal in explaining that the opera was designed to give equal time to the Israelis and the Palestinians, critics—most notably musicologist Richard Taruskin—called out Adams for “romanticizing” the hijackers. The New York Times op-ed piece in which this comment appears is more generally about the immense power of music, and therefore the need for intelligent forbearance. He uses the example of the “social contract” in Israel that—by and large—has kept the music of Wagner from being performed in that country.

There are many examples of music caught up in world politics throughout history. Sometimes this happens accidentally, but sometimes the composer’s intent is to be part of the discussion. This brings up philosophical questions about art’s place in society—a question many composers have considered carefully. Although Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven did not always advertise their political beliefs, they allowed themselves to be inspired by them. In the next couple of months, LACO will be featuring music by these three gentlemen. Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica Symphony, a massive monument to politics and music, is featured on our February 22 Discover concert.

We rely on music to soothe us, to make the traffic on the way home from work bearable, to inspire us. We unwind to music, exercise to our favorite albums, and play songs at celebrations of all kinds. But music is so much more than mere pleasant sounds. When politics are involved, music sometimes joins in the fray, gets its hands dirty (so to speak) and carries a message. It has the power to inform, educate and warn. I first heard the name Nelson Mandela in a song. Now that he is gone, the world is both mourning his absence and celebrating his incredible life. Music is part of that, as it should be.

Nelson Mandela by the Specials

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