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Revolution 10: Music About Revolution And Protest

The people have spoken! Here are ten pieces inspired by revolution and protest.

Bloody Sunday 1905
A painting depicting Bloody Sunday: January 22, 1905. Public domain.

Ten Pieces of Music About Revolution

Within the timeline of any major regime, revolution and civil unrest seem to become part of the natural course of events at some point. The idea of toppling an unjust government or system is a romantic notion that inspires numerous artists, whether based in historical fact or not. As we celebrate the United States’ Independence Day, let us take a look at ten pieces of music inspired by or evocative of revolutionary causes throughout history.


10. “Tout change et grandit en ces lieux” from Guillaume Tell – Gioachino Rossini

Rossini’s tale about the legendary fifteenth-century Swiss archer might well be his most famous work, if only for the overture. Both the Ranz de Vaches and the gallop at the end have permeated pop culture as iconic themes, the former representing sunrise and the latter most famously used as the theme for The Lone Ranger. The story of the opera itself deals with Swiss efforts to oust their Hapsburg rulers, and it ends with the victorious cries of “Liberté, redescends des cieux (Liberty, descend again from Heaven),” as they celebrate triumph over their Austrian oppressors.


9. Symphony No. 5 in D, Op. 107, “Reformation” – Felix Mendelssohn

As is the case with any number of pieces by famous composers in history, the numbering of this symphony is a bit misleading, given that it was actually the second symphony the composer wrote. Mendelsson composed this piece in 1830, in honor of the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, one of the most important documents of the Protestant Reformation that made way for the recognition and acceptance of Christian denominations outside of Catholicism. The fourth movement is notable for its use of the Lutheran hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is Our God).” Certainly not a traditional revolution akin to those in France, Russia, or the United States, but it created an entirely new landscape for religious expression in the world.

The execution of Maximilian Robespierre in 1794
The execution of Maximilian Robespierre in 1794, considered the end of the Reign of Terror. Public domain.


8. “Salve Regina” from Dialogues des carmélites (Dialogues of the Carmelites) – Francis Poulenc

The French Revolution has provided the inspiration for numerous works of art, ranging from paintings, literature, music, and film. Francis Poulenc’s 1956 opera was one such work, specifically drawing on the story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, a group of sixteen nuns and other members of a Carmelite monastery who were sentenced to death during the Reign of Terror. The end of the opera features these women singing the Marian hymn “Salve Regina” as they are executed at the guillotine one by one, embracing their roles as martyrs for the cause of peace.


7. Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale – Hector Berlioz

Not long after the French Revolution ended with Napoleon’s coup d’etat in 1799, the reigning monarch Charles X was removed from power in July of 1830, which made way for Louis Philippe I to take over. To celebrate such a momentous triumph, the French government commissioned Hector Berlioz to write a symphony for the tenth anniversary of the July Revolution. It is the last symphony that Berlioz composed, and is something of a rarity in that it is written entirely for a large wind band with no strings required (though they were optional).

An 1870 wood engraving by Beval imagining the 1832 insurrection in Paris
An 1870 wood engraving by Beval imagining the 1832 insurrection in Paris. Public domain.


6. “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Misérables – music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, words by Alain Boublil, and Jean-Marc Natel

Naturally, some people were not happy with the “July Monarchy” of Louise Philippe I and since the government had already been overthrown twice, what’s to stop a handful of citizens from trying again? Unfortunately, the June Rebellion of 1832 did not work out favorably for the insurrection, which serves as the backdrop to Victor Hugo’s epic historical novel, Les Misérables. Most audiences probably recognize it in the form of the musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Jean-Marc Natel. One of the pivotal moments in the story is the death of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque, which incites the rebellion and leads to the famous standoff at the barricade, following the rallying cry of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”


5. “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco – Giuseppe Verdi

Also known as the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,” this is probably one of Verdi’s most recognizable individual selections from his many operas. Though in the context of the opera it is sung by the oppressed Hebrews as they dream of their homeland, Verdi is said to have intended it as an anthem for Italians seeking unification of their country, though this is questioned by some historians. Still, the slogan Viva VERDI (Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia) did spread throughout Italy during this period in the mid to late nineteenth century, and “Va, pensiero” was even sung spontaneously at Verdi’s funeral, showing the composer’s influence in the Italian political landscape. In 1871, Victor Emmanuel II was crowned as the new monarch of the Kingdom of Italy.  


4. Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, “The Year 1905” – Dmitri Shostakovich

Prior to the more permanent revolution of 1917, there was a period of great unrest in Russia that began in January of 1905, which successfully brought about a reform of the government two years later, though the Tsar remained in power. Shostakovich’s eleventh symphony is a grim, cinematic representation of that period, and may have partially been inspired by the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The second movement makes reference to Bloody Sunday, the catalyst that sparked the revolution after the Imperial Guard fired upon petitioners to the government, and Shostakovich’s music is fittingly somber and intense in its depiction.


3. Festive Overture – Dmitri Shostakovich

A few years before the aforementioned eleventh symphony, Shostakovich was asked to compose a work to celebrate the thirty-seventh anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917, which did successfully remove the Tsar from power and establish the new Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic months later. With only a few days to compose the piece, Shostakovich churned out one of his most famous works, and though the twelfth symphony, subtitled “The Year 1917,” was also dedicated to the revolution, this seems to be the more successful of the two pieces.

Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ca. 1955. Public domain.


2. A Movement for Rosa – Mark Camphouse

On December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks made history for her defiance in the face of prejudice towards African-Americans. She was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat in the “colored” section of a bus to a white man, and her actions inspired many who were a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Her life and experiences were the inspiration for Mark Camphouse when he wrote this famous work for concert band, which contains hints and quotations of the song “We Shall Overcome“, a defining hymn of protest during that time in United States history.


1. The People United Will Never Be Defeated! – Frederic Rzewski

The Chilean coup of 1973 was one of several similar occurrences during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, one that United States interests were particularly vested in. The coup resulted in the toppling of the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) government that had secured the presidency for Salvador Allende, one of the first Marxist presidents of a Latin American country. During this time, the song “¡El pueblo unido, jamás sera vencido! (The People United Will Never Be Defeated!)” became a popular protest song for the Chilean people, and it is here that Rzewski got his inspiration for his set of thirty-six piano variations of the same name.

This Saturday, July 4th, don’t forget about the Houston Symphony’s A Star-Spangled Salute at 8:30 PM at Miller Outdoor Theatre. If you can’t make it to the show, tune in to Classical 91.7 at 8:30 and listen to the show live with Catherine Lu as your host! And if you feel like getting your patriotic blood flowing a little early, tune it at 8:00 PM for a pre-show with Joshua Zinn. 

Joshua Zinn

Joshua Zinn

Producer, Houston Matters

Joshua is a producer for Houston Matters on News 88.7 as well as the host of Encore Houston on Houston Public Media Classical. He joined Houston Public Media as a radio intern in 2014 and became a full-time announcer the following year. Now he prepares segments and occasionally records interviews...

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