One of the great contributions of the classical music tradition has been its illumination of the idea and reality of historic revolution. It may be a stretch to think that the people of Egypt will reach for the western music canon to inspire their current revolution, but we can project on how it could affect their spirit, because there is always a place for revolution-inspired music in our everyday life. Whether we need to rally our spirit to demand a better work situation or to gather courage to seek release from an oppressive relationship, we are frequently in the midst of our own personal revolutions. And these grand, historic revolutions like the one being waged in Egypt now are just the epic, macrocosmic versions of what happens daily to us on a personal, microcosmic level.
The most widely renowned music of revolutionary spirit has to be the music of Beethoven. It is said that Beethoven planned to dedicate his Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” to Napoleon Bonaparte for his part in the success of the French Revolution, but then retracted the dedication because of Napoleon’s autocratic turn. This historical note may help justify our labeling the symphony ‘revolutionary,’ but it really doesn’t matter because when you hear the music, you actually can feel the spirit of revolution, the surge of positivity and hope is palpable.
This spirit pervades much of Beethoven’s symphonic output and can power many a personal and historic revolution.
But most revolutions are not immediately triumphant. There are the setbacks, there is the bloodshed both real and figurative that may spell defeat or fuel the flame of future attempts. No composer has captured these “realities” of revolution better than Dmitri Shostakovich. His Symphony No. 11 was written to commemorate the failed Russian revolution of 1905. Shostakovich wrote this symphony in 1957 (not coincidentally, a year after the Hungarian uprising had been brutally crushed), which meant there was much time to digest and consider the reality of that historic event. The symphony starts somberly, obviously aware of the outcome as if a camera is panning a scene of ruin. The entire symphony is a meditation on revolution: the vagaries of change, the fear, uncertainty, the frantic search for the unknown. The final movement returns to quiet and with a beautiful English Horn solo captures the heartfelt sadness of the lapse back into oppression, until the drum signals the spirit, which stirs again to rise for another go.
Because The People United Will Never Be Defeated. The American iconoclastic composer Frederic Rzewski is no stranger to the theme of revolution in his music and his set of 36 variations on the Chilean revolutionary song ¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! Is a blatant summoning of the uprising spirit.
Rzewski’s use of variations is ingenious, because of course during the course of revolution, the spirit travels through all the possible emotions, reaching zenith and nadir perhaps many times, until in this case, its forceful and beautiful triumph.