Tuesday, December 15, 2015

November and December of 2015 will be the months remembered for the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.  As a nation, we mourn and sympathize with the country of France and the state of California.  Social media lit up with pictures of Paris and San Bernardino, expressions of sympathy, pictures of the French flag, quotes from politicians, religious, and philosophical leaders.  Our hearts go out to all affected by these horrible acts and to those who survived.

Multiple times on Facebook appeared a quote from American composer/conductor, Leonard Bernstein.  In reply to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, Bernstein wrote a letter to be included in the New York Philharmonic programs that weekend.  The quote:

“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime.  But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art.  Our music will never again be quite the same.  This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” 

From an historical point of view, Maestro Bernstein hit upon the healing and comforting power of music.  Across the centuries music has been written to commemorate freedoms won, for commentary during times of suffering and war, and times of peace.  Whether these pieces of music were composed to arouse a sense of patriotism or give solace in the time of loss, music’s profound effect is felt on an individual basis.  We turn to music…..the great comforter and the sound that will transport us for a few minutes or hours to a place of escape. 

Two days after President Kennedy was shot by an assassin, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in a performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, “The Resurrection.”  Writing about the choice of resurrection, the conductor expressed that, “…. resurrection was for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him.” 

As I thought about what Leonard Bernstein had written, I spent time looking at music history and which composers wrote works during times of conflict and what inspired them to write that specific piece.  One could go on for pages citing works of composers, yet, I chose four composers to highlight for their beliefs and musical reactions to political strife.

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was a British composer, suffragette and author.  Having joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1910, Dame Ethel composed March of the Women, the anthem and battle call of the movement.  The anthem was sung across England to further the demand for women’s rights.  Along with other suffragettes, she was incarcerated at Holloway Prison in 1912 for she had broken windows and caused political disorder.  Leaning out of her cell with tooth brush in hand, she conducted her fellow suffragettes singing their anthem.  Close your eyes and envision what a performance that must have been.  A year earlier in 1911, Ethel had conducted the same anthem at the Royal Albert Hall in London.  In my personal opinion, I think the 1912 prison performance was most likely the most impassioned one given! 
Oppression of women, the rights of women to vote and make decisions for themselves was honored by an anthem that united the suffragette movement in music!

Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) “Ode to Joy” from his Ninth Symphony has been performed during times of unrest, protest and celebrations.  Using a portion of Friedrich Schiller’s poem honoring brotherhood and the unity of all mankind, Beethoven’s work has been performed at Tiananmen Square during the student uprising, at the fall of the Berlin Wall conducted by Leonard Bernstein and by protesters during the demonstrations against Chile’s dictator Pinochet.  Though not composed as a political commentary piece, “Ode to Joy” rings forth as a hymn of unity, comfort and compassion for every citizen of the world.
Since Gena Branscombe (1881-1977) has been a part of my life for the past 16 years, I do tend to put her music forth frequently in this blog.  To financially assist the Canadian Red Cross during World War I, Miss Branscombe and fellow Canadian poet Katherine Hale joined together to publish the song, “Dear Lad o’Mine.”   A mother prays for the protection of her soldier son with outbursts of anger at war, followed by comforting thoughts for his safety in the trenches.  All proceeds from the sale of this song went to the Canadian Red Cross.  During World War II, Gena worked with fellow Canadian poet, Arthur Stringer, to publish “Grow Softly Maple Leaves,” a song of comfort to all who lost their lives protecting the rights of Canadians.  Rather than rouse people to the cause of war, composer and poets sought to make aware the horrors of war and at the same time pay tribute and comfort to those who fought and those who survived.

Often times politically based musical works are wrapped in alternative storytelling to by-pass censorship.  So was the case with Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) when he wrote the orchestral tone poem, Finlandia.  This work was a protest against the censorship of the Russian Empire.  To perform Finlandia, the title was changed to appease censors yet the underlying story of this provoking and tumultuous work was the struggle of the Finnish people to recover their country.  In 1941 Sibelius reworked Finlandia into a hymn with words by Eikko Antero Koskenniemi.  The hymn is now one of the most important national songs of Finland.  Here is a link to the hymn........
A hymn creates a sense of pride for Finland and leads that country to its rights for making their own decisions and political statements.

In their own way, each of these artists made a statement against war, violence and oppression.  In my mind, they sought comfort for those at home, concern and love for those at the front lines and then a sense of patriotism for their country.  Whether their music was heard in a grand concert hall, a church, a small recital hall, in someone’s home or for an individual’s personal listening, these artists abhorred the senseless violence and through their music sought to triumph the mind over the world’s heightened sense of fear.