Marc Estrin : The Revolutionary Messages of Classical Music

Johannes Brahms by Lucian Tidorescu.

Protest music:
Radical themes of the great composers

The Brahms Requiem is also movement music, unbearably beautiful, revealingly deep — like our afflicted lives.

By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / January 25, 2010

In a recent article titled “Movement Music,” the invaluable David Swanson sings a hymn of praise for the equally invaluable David Rovics. Movement music, yes.

Back in 2003, The Nation devoted an entire issue to “The Power of Music” of the “protest music industry.” And here in Vermont we have come up with Free Vermont Radio, a digital online music provider featuring an entire library of Vermont musicians, many of whom write and perform “movement music.”

It’s odd: nowhere in any of the above is there a mention of a thousand years of western classical music.

Why is lefty life — so highly educated, morally aware, philosophically sophisticated, politically savvy — why are we so blind, so deaf, to the radical expression and revolutionary messages therein?

I don’t get it. In “classical” music — from the tenth through the twentieth century — we have inherited a cornucopia of profundities, prompting and announcing social change at every step along the way, educating human consciousness towards ever-greater complexity of perception and thought, coaxing out our emotional and spiritual depths.

The great composers have always demanded from us, and developed in us, precisely those sensibilities we need to confront the hughest issues we face — structure, otherness, variation, modulation, time, change, form, dissipation… love.

I think of the room in which the “Eroica” was first performed — its aristocratic, gold-leafed curlicues, its elaborately carved chairs. I think of Beethoven’s assessment of the “princely rabble” that would seat their asses on those chairs, and the shattering indictment with which he would assault them in the name of freedom. “Seid umschlungen, Millionen,” he intoned in the Ninth Symphony, masses embracing in the kiss of the entire world. Tell it to Cheney and Obama, CENTCOM and the IMF.

Bach’s intensity and structural investigations, Brahms’s sexuality unlimited, Mahler’s catalogue of hetero-interactions, Wagner’s engorging instability, Bartok’s mesto dance, Stravinsky’s primordial landscapes, Berg’s evocation of interstitial states — one could go on and on, and in and in. Are all these irrelevant to the left, and to our goals of head and heart?

Let’s talk about the means of production. Though there are surely classical stars and consumers, by far the greatest number of sounds are made by amateurs at choral or orchestral or chamber music rehearsals and performances, or playing at home — a democratic, participatory picture of growth, education, and community, growing since the eighteenth century.

Yes, David Rovics and the singer-songwriters of the protest industry speak strongly to us and our times. But they are not the only music relevant to the left. We need to recover the largesse of our musical heritage.

Recently, after only a few days of organizing, 200 musicians, along with the Bread and Puppet Theater, came quickly together for a concert of the Brahms Requiem — to raise funds for Haiti relief. Over $10,000 dollars was collected from an audience of 700.

The Brahms Requiem is also movement music, unbearably beautiful, revealingly deep — like our afflicted lives.

[Marc Estrin is a writer and activist, living in Burlington, Vermont. His novels, Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Golem Song, and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz have won critical acclaim. His memoir, Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer) won a 2004 theater book of the year award. He is currently working on a novel about the dead Tchaikovsky.]

The Rag Blog

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2 Responses to Marc Estrin : The Revolutionary Messages of Classical Music

  1. Wonderful piece, and long overdue–see my blog,, for my recent entry on a classical pianist who’s also a working stiff. I would add to your essay a discussion of Modest Mussorgsky,a champion of the people who tried to make his music truly speak to their culture and values.
    Joe Atkins

  2. Also think of the Brandenburg Concerto; the Warsaw Concerto – or consider the ‘joy’ of Clair de Lune, and the somber Funeral Marche by Chopin.

    People who compose music are affected not only by their own emotions and reactions to ‘life’, but to societies’ conditions as they were (and are) at the time they weave those emotions and conditions into music.

    Maybe what makes something ‘classical’ is the fact certain conditions and emotions are prevalent throughout time, and those that are the most profound and strong, prevail in all compositions……….

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