Making Marx in the Music: A HyperHistory of New Music and Politics

The 1930s saw the rise of a phenomenon called proletarian literature. According to George Orwell, this did not mean either literature written by or for the proletariat, but rather “a literature in which the viewpoint of the working class, which is supposed to be completely different from that of the richer classes, gets a hearing” (“The Proletarian Writer,” 1940). Even were a proletarian to achieve enough education to write novels, Orwell says, his writing would still have to be based on the conventions of bourgeois literature, since he would be unable to escape the literary conventions of the dominant bourgeois class.

Music does not exactly duplicate this situation, but one Marxist idea of politically relevant music is one in which the tunes of the working class “get a hearing.” In the 1930s, this mostly meant folk songs. When the leftist impulse returned in the 1970s, it mostly meant political songs, union organizing songs, explicitly revolutionary songs.

Of course, for Eastern European composers like Dvorak, Smetana, and Tchaikovsky, the quotation of folk songs from their native land, or at least reference to the modal and rhythmic qualities of such folk songs, had been in itself a statement of nationalist political leanings throughout the late 19th century. Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances were popular in Vienna for their exotic flavor, but he had to be careful about when and where he wanted his Slavic melodies heard as protest against the oppressions of the Austro-Hungarian regime. In America, Charles Ives made something of a mania of quotation—perhaps partly from a nationalist impulse, more often from nostalgia and an aesthetic of direct representation of sonic landscapes, without any apparent political intent in mind. Something similar could be said for Virgil Thomson. The earliest American composer to quote folk songs in his music from a specifically political impulse seems to have been Aaron Copland. As he wrote of his leftist leanings in the early 1930s:


I began to feel an increasing dissatisfaction with the relations of the music-loving public and the living composer…. It seemed to me that composers were in danger of working in a vacuum…. I felt it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.

In 1932 he wrote his first work based on folk tunes, El Salon Mexico. Other ballets and tone poems—Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), A Lincoln Portrait (1942), Appalachian Spring (1943-4)—followed, incorporating the songs of America’s vanishing rural culture: “Streets of Laredo,” “‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple,” “Camptown Races.”

Other leftists used folk material as well, including Roy Harris in his “Folk Song” Symphony and Elie Siegmeister (who made heroic Marxist efforts to reach out to working class audiences) in his Ozark Suite. Virgil Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune and his opera with Gertrude Stein The Mother of Us All are virtual collages of American tunes that used to be familiar to every schoolchild—arguably written so less because of Thomson’s political leanings than because of his Satie-esque love of simplicity and homespun “Americanism.” Some modernist composers were horrified by the simplicity trend of the 1930s, and begged Copland to return to writing dissonant music. Ruth Crawford, unable to reconcile her Communist sympathies with her love of dissonant counterpoint, gave up composing and collected folk songs. As Arthur Berger later said of the era, “To be politically correct one had to write accessible music, music for the masses. This did not appeal to me, and the only compromise I could make with my politically leftist sympathies was to stop composing altogether for a few years.”

After World War II, the 12-tone based, so-called International Style dominated music in the 1950s, and the thirst for maximum complexity obscured the idea of identifiable quotation. The idea of simplifying music in order to reach the working masses returned in the 1970s with Cardew, Rzewski, and Wolff. The pattern that Cardew invented was the piano piece based on a political song, and the first instance was his Thaelmann Variations, based on a rallying song of the German Communist Party, and commemorating the 30th anniversary of the death of its leader Ernest Thaelmann, who had died in the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944. Cardew also wrote a number of shorter piano works based on songs of political import, such as “Four Principles on Ireland,” and often when he would write a political song, he would also make a non-vocal piano arrangement of it, as is the case with “Soon (There Will Be a High Tide of Revolution).” Boolavogue, the ambitious two-piano work Cardew was working on when he was killed (he finished three movements out of four), was a sonata-form theme and variations on the eponymous Irish freedom fighting song of 1798. In searching for a recognizable vernacular to reach his mass audience, Cardew frequently turned to the ornate, pleasant, Baroque keyboard tradition of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book as an indigenous English musical idiom to which his immediate listeners could connect.


Frederick Rzewski
Frederick Rzewski
Photo by Michael Wilson, courtesy Nonesuch

In 1975, only a year after the Thaelmann Variations, Frederic Rzewski wrote easily the most ambitious work in this genre, a work so successful that it can be said to have entered the standard piano repertoire: The People United Can Never Be Defeated. A mammoth set of 36 variations on a Chilean revolutionary song by Sergio Ortega, The People United is a compositional tour de force comparable to Beethoven‘s Diabelli Variations or BrahmsHandel Variations. Its 36 variations are grouped into six sets, and the last one in each set sums up all the technical devices of the first five. Despite the austere elegance of the overall structure, the tune is frequently recognizable, and in Variation 13 the music pauses at a poignant moment to quote the Communist rallying song “Bandiera Rossa.”

The highly structured, yet stylistically heterogenous, idiom Rzewski created in The People United is one he calls “humanist realism,” describing it as:


A conscious employment of techniques which are designed to establish communication, rather than to alienate an audience. That does not necessarily mean an exclusion of what’s called avant-garde style, by any means. [But]… if one is seriously interested in communication, then I suppose that a rigorous, say, formalistic style such as the style of the formalist composers and so on would be at a serious disadvantage.

For several years in the 1970s, quotation seemed to be Rzewski’s primary modus operandi. He followed up The People United with four North American Ballads based quite audibly on songs of the American unionist and peace movements: “Dreadful Memories” (Aunt Molly Jackson‘s lyric memoir of a 1932 coal miners’ strike), “Which Side Are You On?,” “Down By the Riverside” (a symbol of the Vietnam peace movement), and “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.” Rzewski’s partitioning of the piano keyboard vividly illustrates the words that everyone hopefully hears in their head while he’s playing:


Don’t scab for the bosses
Don’t listen to their lies.
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize.
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

A later (and subtler, to my ears) theme and variations, Mayn Yingele (1988), written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the infamous Nazi Kristallnacht, takes flight from a Yiddish song in which a father complains that he works so hard he never gets to see his baby son.

Perhaps Rzewski’s most powerful political statement, however, is one that uses words, on behalf of homosexuals rather than union workers: De Profundis, his masterful 1992 setting of the poignant letter Oscar Wilde wrote to his former lover from Reading Gaol. Pounding not only the keyboard but his own chest and cheeks, Rzewski (or Anthony De Mare, who also plays this piece compellingly and for whom it was written) intones and pianistically elaborates words that came from the depths of Wilde’s soul and stand as a reproach to our society yet today:


On November 13, 1895, I was brought down here from London. From two o’clock till half-past two on that day, I had to stand on the center platform of Clapham Junction in convict dress, and handcuffed, for the world to look at. When people saw me they laughed. Each train swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was, of course, before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed, they laughed still more. For half an hour I stood there in the November rain surrounded by a jeering mob. For a year I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time. In prison tears are a part of every day’s experience. A day in prison on which one does not weep is a day on which one’s heart is hard, not a day on which one’s heart is happy.

After moving to Liege in the 1980s, however, Rzewski’s commitment to political music seemed to weaken, and one could argue that he gradually left the idea of humanist realism behind. His 1991 Sonata is based around the tunes “L’homme arme” and “Three Blind Mice“—politically significant once, perhaps, but not in recent centuries—and his recent four-hour “piano novel” The Road, though playfully circuitous, is thoroughly abstract.

Like Rzewski and Cardew, Christian Wolff has produced keyboard works based on political tunes. Sometimes the latter are clearly evident, as in his Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida of 1979, based on a Holly Near song lamenting victims of Pinochet‘s junta in Chile. Other times—as in his Preludes of 1981 based on “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and other tunes of the American labor movement—the notes of the tune form the underlying basis of a song, but are not audible. This technique, conveying little politics to the audience beyond the title of the song, seems to accompany Wolff’s lowered expectations of what political music can accomplish. “One way to try to convey something political,” he’s said, “is with a text. That’s the guaranteed way, theoretically; actually, it’s not at all guaranteed…. But at least it’s a start, because people will say, what do you mean? Or what does this title mean? Or where is that text from? You create an occasion in which political questions can be raised, or a little bit of modest education can take place.”

A few younger composers have picked up the mantle of political music via quotation. A rare chamber work in this genre, and quite a large one, is No More in Thrall for string quartet and percussion (1995) by Jeffrey Schanzer, a Trotskyite Socialist in New York City whose father survived the Buchenwald death camp in Nazi Germany. This attractive non-vocal work in five movements—a meditation on Buchenwald and similar atrocities on the common thread of racial hatred—is based on various melodies of protest and ethnic associations, such as a Yiddish lullaby “Shlof in der Ruikeit” (Sleep in Peace); the ever-handy “Which Side are You On?“; a gypsy song about being deported to a concentration camp; and the “Internationale,” worldwide anthem of the socialist movement, whose opening words “Arise ye slaves no more in thrall” gives Schanzer’s piece its title.

Back in the late 1970s, when the idea of political music was much in the air and song quotation was the most widely approved strategy, I studied with Peter Gena, who quoted political tunes in his early solo and chamber works like McKinley, Joe Hill, and Mother Jones. Subsequently, I quoted a few political tunes myself. My quartet New World Coming (2001) is based on “There’s a New World Coming,” a 1975 spiritual by folk singer and civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon (founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock):


The nations of Asia and Africa
They’re taking over their lives.
The sisters and brothers south of us
Are finally gettin’ wise.
Then take a look, United States
Of the North American clime,
With your strange mixture of wealth and hate
You won’t be exempt this time!

In addition, my 1984 chamber piece Hesapa ki Lakhota ki Thawapi (The Black Hills Belong to the Sioux, recorded on Monroe Street) is based on not only the quotation but the gradual destruction of a Sioux melody—an attempted combination of political quotation and process piece. The tune opens in a rolling 12/8, and gradually becomes more anxious and choppy as beats are subtracted from the recurring structure. The piece was intended as a protest against yet another attempt by the U.S. government to buy away tracts of the Sioux’s sacred Black Hills for the sake of the underlying uranium. It doesn’t seem to have influenced national policy much.

An entirely individual case is the Chicago composer Frank Abbinanti, one of only two Americans known to me (Schanzer being the other) from the post-Cardew/Rzewski generation who might define themselves as political composers, and a Marxist at that. Abbinanti’s signal work of his early career was Liberation Music, a piano piece based on “Bandiera Rossa.” More often, however, he has stayed away from quotation, writing instrumental music that protrays moments of political struggle either through atmosphere (as in the Phrygian mode repeated notes of his Espana: La Lucha for brass ensemble, an homage to the Spanish Civil War) or through musical gestures that evoke the physical qualities of working class life. The leading example here is his 16 American Labor Studies for piano which he has been reworking for orchestra, with titles like “Cleveland Strike,” “Welders,” “The Milagro Beafield War,” “The Ludlow Massacre,” “Cincinnati Tailor.” These pieces commemorate events in labor union history by evoking the repetitive work activities of the unions referred to—picking, scraping, sewing, welding—as well as the violence of the associated strikes.

The most impressive of Abbinanti’s recent works is Jenin (2002), an hour-long, partly improvisatory piano work lamenting the massacre of the Palestinians in the West Bank town of Jenin by the Israeli army. Although there are no direct quotations, Abbinanti immersed himself in the tonality of Lebanese mourning songs before writing.

Ultimately, it is questionable whether quotation in the traditional sense will remain a relevant model for political music. Already today, when you play Ives’s Second Symphony for undergraduates, very few recognize tunes like “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” or “Down in the Cornfield” or “Rally Round the Flag.” How many people under 40 would now recognize “Bandiera Rosa” when it appears in The People United, or the pitches from “Big Rock Candy Mountain” in a Wolff’s Prelude even if you could hear them? Cultural continuity with such folk songs, songs of political protest, union songs, has been widely lost. The effect of The People United or Mayn Yingele will usually be to introduce the song to people who have never heard it before, which may be a worthwhile aim; as Wolff writes, “I hope that recalling a song will be an opportunity to recall its political occasion.” But it seems rare that the effect would tap into the collective spirit elicited by the song in the way these pieces seem intended to work, and as they might have worked a couple of decades ago.

At some point, quotation may be replaced, if it hasn’t been already, by sampling. Millions of young people who’ve never heard Holly Near’s “Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida” to recognize it in quotation would recognize, say, a recording of Martin Luther King‘s “I Have a Dream” speech if incorporated into an electronic piece. One might say that the sampling of riot noises in Bob Ostertag‘s All the Rage is a kind of quotation, and I suspect that many more young electronic musicians than I know about have started using such sampling with political intent. It seems a potent new force for political music.

From Making Marx in the Music: A HyperHistory of New Music and Politics
by Kyle Gann
© 2003 NewMusicBox

2 thoughts on “Making Marx in the Music: A HyperHistory of New Music and Politics

  1. Pingback: Kyle Gann on “political music” | Phil Thomson, Composer

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