Music of Protest
~We start with my own experience of protest going back to the Kent State massacre of May 4, 1970. This was the day four students were shockingly killed by National Guardsmen who were called in by the Ohio governor to quell protests against the US bombing invasion of Cambodia. I was a junior at nearby Oberlin Conservatory at the time. The night (Monday) of the killings the entire student body met in the concert hall to decide what mode of action we would take. In what seemed like a unanimous vote we chose to perform the Mozart Requiem the following Sunday at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. It was an intense and inspiring week of 3-a-day rehearsals under dean and choral director Robert Fountain. On Saturday we piled into six buses and were on our way to the nation’s capital.
To give some context as to just how horrible the news of that week was, listen to conductor George Szell’s short speech before the opening of the Cleveland Orchestra subscription concert that Thursday evening.
On the 50th anniversary of our performance Oberlin Conservatory released a documentary of the event. The opening 3 minutes of the video is a non-synchronized segment of the performance. When we returned to Oberlin we performed it again and the piece was recorded properly. It is hard to pick an excerpt as the entire performance is electrically charged with the full range of emotions. For the salon I played the Lacrimosa which is performed at a very purposeful slow tempo (which starts at 44:00). Remember this is an all-hands-on-deck performance. The chorus is made up of music professors, instrumentalists, piano, organ, and voice majors.
~Within two weeks of the massacre in 1970 Crosby Stills Nash & Young, the foremost band in the land after the Beatles recent breakup, composed and fast tracked the protest song Ohio onto the airwaves. Its lyrics were pointed…”4 dead in Ohio” and bold…”tin soldiers and Nixon coming.” AM stations banned the song because of the president’s name. FM stations, then underground, however ran the song all the way up to #14 on the charts.
~Back to this century, here is conductor Ricardo Muti in a remarkable speech and emotional encore of the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s opera Nabucco. The chorus number (Va, pensiero) has historically been a symbol of protest in Italy. “O mia patria, si bella e perduta!” (“O my country, so beautiful, and lost!”) This performance occurred on opening night at the Rome Opera House in 2011 during the financial crisis in Italy when funds for the arts were being slashed right and left. “You cannot eat culture” said the Finance Minister! It is interesting to note that the financial faucet for the arts opened up after this pivotal event. Make sure to check out the translation of Muti’s speech right below the video.
~Between 1877 and 1950 there were more than 4400 victims of lynching in the South. It was a frightful existence for Blacks with little or no organized resistance to the crime. Upset with the hopelessness of it all, songwriter/poet Abel Meeropol wrote Strange Fruit and set it to music in 1937. The song first gained popularity in Greenwich Village and eventually was sung in Madison Square Garden. Billie Holiday debuted it at the Cafe Society, New York’s first integrated nightclub, in 1939. The cafe’s owner specified the following rules for the song: it would close the evening; there would be total darkness except for a spotlight on the singer; waiters would stop serving; no encore. Essentially the song became the unofficial beginning of the civil rights movement as we know it today.
~A year later in 1940 William Grant Still, who himself had witnessed a lynching earlier in his life, joined the protest movement by collaborating with the white poet Katherine Chapin in the choral ballad And They Lynched Him On a Tree. The work depicts the victim, who has already been convicted and sentenced to life, being discovered lynched after the white mob has taken him from jail. The last line, “a long dark shadow will fall across your land!” precedes an unresolved chord at the end. The original performance was highly publicized and took place outdoors at New York’s Lewisohn Stadium in front of thousands including Eleanor Roosevelt, Justice Felix Frankfurter, and Mayor Robert Wagner.
We start at 11:40 with the narrator (“He was a man!”) followed by the white chorus (“Justice was a slow thing to be waiting for”), then the mother (“O my Jesus”), and finally both white and black choruses joining (“They left him hanging for the world to pass by”).
~Shostakovich wrote his 7th Symphony as a protest against all totalitarianism, not just the German siege of Leningrad in 1941. In 1942 the work was performed over loudspeakers throughout the bombed out city by whatever musicians were available. Russian army grenades were lobbed into the enemy lines to keep the German artillery quiet so the music could be heard. The symphony became an immediate success. The composer sent the music in microfilm to NY (via Teheran and Cairo) where Toscanini and his NBC Orchestra played the piece over the airwaves. When Tolstoy touted the work, Stalin joined in on the praise and used the symphony as a propaganda vehicle for Russia and the West as well. Who knows, perhaps the dictator had no idea that the genesis of the composition was all about his oppression of Soviet society. If he did he wasn’t about to interfere with the huge popularity and success of the Seventh.
In Shostakovich’s own words, years later:
“Even before the war, there probably wasn’t a single family who hadn’t lost someone, a father, a brother, or if not a relative, then a close friend. Everyone had someone to cry over, but you had to cry silently, under the blanket, so no one would see. Everyone feared everyone else, and the sorrow oppressed and suffocated us. It suffocated me, too. I had to write about it, I felt it was my responsibility, my duty. I had to write a requiem for all those who died, who had suffered. I had to describe the horrible extermination machine and express protest against it.” – from Testimony by Solomon Volkov (published 1979).
The work itself is one of the longest in symphonic repertoire and takes anywhere from 75-85 minutes to perform depending on interpretation. For the full cathartic effect of the ending we start at 1:14:06 and relentlessly build to the tympani/bass drum dramatic outcry before the final chord.
~In 1968 Luciano Berio wrote O King following Martin Luther King’s assassination. It is a short avant garde work consisting of all the syllables in MLK’s name, underscored with ping like accents from the ensemble’s instruments (violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano). The soprano voice is treated as an instrument as well, sans vibrato. Only in the last 30 seconds do we finally hear “O Martin Luther King” strung together.
~And finally, we hear the entire Seven Last Words of the Unarmed by Joel Thompson (2016). The format of the work is based on Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ in which each movement depicts a biblical saying from the crucifixion. In this case we hear the final words of seven unarmed victims who were shot and killed by police officers. It is an incredibly moving and relevant work for our times. The video ends with the chorus launching into a very upbeat version of the song Glory.
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