Music, History, and Politics

From Monteverdi to John Adams

According to the tradition, the classical theater and opera has to deal with noble subjects. It has related for a long time schemes at court and adventures of antique emperors. Racine's and Handel's works are often about historical characters: for example, in The Coronation of Poppaea (Monteverdi) or Giulio Cesare (Handel). Later, Mozart composed The Clemency of Titus on the occasion of Leopold II of Bavaria's coronation. In those cases, the action is based less on the political situation than on intimate and specific plots.

Quickly, history became more than a secondary subject for composers and libretto writers. From the 19th century, when opera used historical subjects, they were at the center of the plot and the main subject of the work. It is for example the case of Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina, which tells the story of the rebellion the Old Believers and the Streltsy in Russia in the 17th century. But it is also true for numerous operas by Verdi which, like Don Carlo, directly relate major historical and political events. As for Wagner, he goes back to the Middle Age to enliven his stories.

It is only in the 20th century that composers stop relating to bygone ages and tackle current problems, like Shostakovich did in his Symphonies No. 7 and 8 directly inspired by the conflicts of World War II. In 2005, John Adams composed Doctor Atomic, an opera linked to Robert Oppenheimer and to the A-Bomb. More recently, the director Larry Weinstein released Mulroney: The Opera, a singing comedy dedicated to the former Prime minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney.

Also during the 20th century, politicians became aware of how they could use classical music. Even a few decades earlier, during the Risorgimento, the supporters of Italy's unification used to write on the walls "Viva Verdi", taking as hero the composer of Patria opressa, whose name is also the acronym for "Vittorio Emanuele Re d'Italia". This use of music reached its peak in the 1930s in Nazi Germany, when the Third Reich blamed composers, mostly the Jewish ones, and forbade their works. Simultaneously, Hitler and his supporters promoted German composers and took over their ideologies (especially Wagner's) or used them for political purposes (like Beethoven, whose Symphony No. 9 was played several times between 1933 and 1945). After the war, some musicians were accused of collaborating with the Nazis (like Furtwängler, who is still today a controversial conductor), and some others, such as Toscanini, were exalted for standing up against Nazi Germany. In USSR, the communist party pushed soviet composers to devote themselves to socialist realism. It is in that context that Shostakovich composed the music of the ballet Bolt, which sings the glory of the working class. Today, politics still gets involved with music, like in Israel where Barenboim struggled to conduct Wagner works in 2001, which confronted him to a call for a boycott from the cultural commission of the Knesset.

Large musical projects with a political purpose were also created in recent years: along with Edward Said, Daniel Barenboim founded an orchestra gathering young musicians from Israel and Palestine, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. In Venezuela, José Antonio Abreu founded El Sistema, which only uses music as a factor of social integration. Branches of El Sistema were created internationally in the past years. What aspect of history can we read through the musical repertoire? How did composers express the political climate in which they lived? How did politicians use music and how do current artists take advantage of music to achieve their political goals?