The most direct and understandable way to politicize music, of course, is to employ a text with political impact. This has been going on at least since the medieval manuscript Le roman de Fauvel castigated the corruption of the ruling clergy in 12th-century France, and to attempt a complete history since that time would be vastly unwieldy.
Limiting ourselves to composers from the world of relatively contemporary music, Charles Ives got an early start writing, in 1896 while still a Yale undergrad, a bumptious and entirely conventional presidential campaign song for William McKinley, “William Will” (words by Danbury newspaperwoman Susan Benedict Hill):
Give us no depreciation
With a silver variation;
Juggle not the workman’s pence!
For it rouses all his choler
When he finds his well-earned dollar
Has been whittled down to only fifty cents!
Ives was rewarded by having the song played by the Marine Band at McKinley’s inauguration, the most visible exposure he received until near the end of his life. After college his political sentiments took a leftward and more populist turn, leaving him eventually a Wilsonian Democrat. Accordingly, he poured more heartfelt sentiments into one of his last songs, a lament over the country’s cynical election of Warren G. Harding, titled variously either “Nov. 4, 1920” or “An Election”:
Too many readers go by the headlines,
Party men will muddle up the facts,
So a good many citizens voted the way grandpa always did….
Then the timid smiled and looked relieved,
“We’ve got enough to eat, to hell with ideals!”
Words as relevant today as they were 83 years ago. Somewhat more idealistic—crazily so, some have thought—was his advocacy for a “People’s World Nation” in his late song “They Are There.” Ives’s own sung rendition was touchingly preserved on a primitive lacquer-coated disc (which was issued on a CRI CD).
When the political climate changed at the beginning of the Depression, making the avant-garde seem too self-absorbed for the national crisis, Ruth Crawford wrote a 1931 round, or canon, on the following Communist-inspired text:
Joy to the world! To live and see the day
When Rockefeller Senior shall up to me and say,
“Comrade! Comrade! Can you spare a dime?”
It’s not a very good round—there are lots of random-seeming whole-step clashes—and it marked the beginning of a two-decade retirement from composing, as Crawford became a collector and arranger of Appalachian folk songs.
In pre-War Europe, the genre of political music took its impetus from one prolific, Protean figure—Arnold Schoenberg‘s rebellious student Hanns Eisler (1898-1962, born in Leipzig). Starting off writing 12-tone music (to which he returned late in life, and his music never really ceased to resemble Schoenberg’s in texture), Eisler fell into a quarrel with his teacher in 1926 after joining the German Communist Party, over the elitist direction of contemporary music. Eisler began working with worker’s choruses and agitprop theater, writing, like Hindemith, a simplified Gebrauchsmusik. In 1930 Eisler joined up with the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht (who had already worked with Kurt Weill), and began turning out trenchant pieces of political music theater. Their music theater debut Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken) of 1931 was unflinching in its economic realism:
Rice can be had down the river
People in the remoter provinces
Need their rice!
If we can keep that rice off the market,
Rice is bound to get dearer.
Then the men who pull the barges
Must go short of rice;
Then I shall get my rice for even less. [pause]
[Unaccompanied] By the way, what is rice? [pause]
[With music] Don’t ask me what rice is.
Don’t ask me my advice
I’ve no idea what rice is.
All I have learned is its price!
Subsequent verses deal with cotton and “a man” in similarly cold terms.
Eisler’s songs with Brecht’s lyrics often attacked with sarcasm and irony the treatment of soldiers and the poor by governments, touching as well on the money-driven superficiality of Hollywood and even abortion, in “Abortion Is Illegal”:
You’re going to be a lovely little mother,
You’re going to make a hunk of cannon fodder,
It’s what your belly’s for,
And that’s no news to you and what else can you do?
And now do not squall:
You’re having the baby, that’s all!
Though simple in style, Eisler’s music was rarely simplistic. He had no problem making populist songs from unrhyming blank verse or prose, rendered poetic by carefully detailed accompaniments. His “Solidarity Song” with Brecht’s lyrics—”Whose tomorrow is tomorrow, and whose earth is the earth?”—was an overnight hit, and after World War II he ended up writing East Germany‘s (predictably staid) national anthem.
Declared a “decadent” upon Hitler’s ascension in 1933, Eisler began a peripatetic émigré existence, ending up in Hollywood in 1942, where he wrote film scores. After the War, in 1947, he was questioned by the McCarthy committee and deported despite protests by Charlie Chaplin, Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau, and Aaron Copland. Back in Vienna he devoted himself to a Deutsche Symphonie, his magnum opus, based on anti-fascist texts. A versatile artist and superb craftsman whose music has been unfairly neglected because of its perceived utilitarian motivations, Eisler is too complex a figure to do justice to here; the interested reader is recommended to start with the excellent Hanns Eisler Web site, which offers numerous sound files of his work.
In American culture, as well, the larger musical protest of the Depression Era occurred in musical theater, which turned political to a greater degree than usual. The Gershwin brothers spoofed war in Strike Up The Band (1930); presidential elections in Of Thee I Sing (1931, in which the president of the United States chooses a First Lady via beauty contest); and political revolution in Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1933). Irving Berlin satirized police corruption in Face the Music (1932), while President Roosevelt was the central character in Rodgers and Hart‘s I’d Rather Be Right (1937). With somewhat more staying power, Kurt Weill gave a voice to the oppressed poor in Die Dreigroschenoper (1928), although the piece didn’t become popular in America until the 1950s (with lyrics translated by Marc Blitzstein) as The Three-Penny Opera.
The show that caused the most trouble, however, making its production a political event in itself, was undoubtedly Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, a 1937 pro-union social satire set in fictional Steeltown, USA. The play unforgettably portrays a judge, a doctor, a newspaper editor, a minister, a college president, and even a pair of artists as prostitutes fawning over the rich capitalist Mister Mister, all of them morally inferior to the literal prostitute who is the victimized heroine of the story. Blitzstein had been brought up in privilege but defected to the leftist cause (to the point of writing lines like “There’s something so damn low about the rich”), and wrote an ending in which union agitator Tom Foreman defies all of Steeltown’s richest and most respected citizens thanks to the last-minute consolidation of thousands of the town’s laborers into a closed shop of unions. The Cradle Will Rock was a project of the Works Progress Administration Theater Project, and yet was considered so dangerous that the WPA went to extreme lengths to delay and prevent the premiere. The story of how producers Orson Welles and John Houseman eventually staged an informal premiere despite insurmountable odds, with the actors singing from the audience because they had been forbidden to go onstage, was recently popularized in a fairly accurate movie by Tim Robbins (though one that fails to match the nobility of its subject matter), called Cradle Will Rock—distinguished in title from the musical by omission of the definite article.
With the approach of World War II, musicals depoliticized. In the world of American opera one will find little such politicization to begin with. Although mid-century operas such as Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), Copland’s The Tender Land (1953), and Floyd‘s Susannah (1955) dealt regularly with the poor, the composers seemed wary of offending their audiences’ (or patrons’) sensibilities by any pointed references to social injustice. An exception might be claimed for the Virgil Thomson/Gertrude Stein The Mother of Us All (1947), whose non-sequitur-packed libretto conceals a feminist critique of ruling-class psychology, all the more persuasive because it reaches you subliminally from beneath layers of seeming nonsense. Another exception was Robert Ward‘s The Crucible (1961), which transferred Arthur Miller‘s eponymous play about the Salem witch trials—a patent allegory about the McCarthy communist witch hunts of the ’50s—to the operatic stage.
In other times and more totalitarian regimes, opera has been used as a vehicle for veiled political opinions that could not be expressed openly. Most famously, the Mozart/Da Ponte Le nozze di Figaro was based on a play by Beaumarchais that had been banned from performance in Vienna even under the comparatively enlightened reign of Joseph II, and which infuriated Louis XVI with its open criticism of privileges claimed by the aristocracy. “Aristocracy, richness, rank, prestige,” Beaumarchais’s Figaro enumerates in words that had to be suppressed by Da Ponte: “all these things make one so proud! But what have you done to deserve so many privileges? You have given yourself the trouble of coming into the world, nothing else.” Even so, the Republican spirit (as in anti-aristocratic, not modern right wing) of Mozart’s work tapped bravely into growing resentment against the ruling classes.
The use of opera to communicate secret meanings past the censors to a sympathetic audience is not a phenomenon one can easily point to in contemporary America or Europe. But I remember, some 13 years ago, the Indonesian composer I Wayan Sadra describing just such conditions under which his theatrical works were performed in Jakarta, sometimes with police and armed military surrounding the auditorium in case some forbidden political reference was made onstage. Under the military dictatorships of the world, music theater still performs the clandestine function it did for Mozart and Da Ponte. In America, one could argue that while free speech is unrestrained, an opera that offends the classes of people who patronize and pay for opera would simply never get near being produced.
Whether more than a handful of such operas exist, I can’t say. Braxton‘s Shala Fears for the Poor, four hours in length and quite ambitious, was performed in New York with a pickup orchestra and under modest conditions, with little press fanfare. Conrad Cummings‘ Tonkin which portrayed a conscientious American captain confused by his own country’s shifting allegiances and his own fondness for the Vietnamese people who saved his life, fared somewhat better. Aside from these, we have, in Harry Partch‘s brief swan song The Dreamer that Remains (1972), a charming protest against the proliferation of “No Loitering” signs. None of them have changed the world, but they’ll have to do.