Songs of Protest

Protest takes many, many forms and we’ve seen potent examples in the news lately, between Ferguson, Missouri and Hong Kong, and beyond. I wrote about seeing protesters in Cape Town this summer, bringing their messages about econmic justice to the public through their songs. I also witnessed a huge gathering of Muslim South Africans protesting peacefully, without song, but walking the streets of Cape Town with families and a sense of community. One of the more unlikely protests happened this past week in St. Louis, at a concert by the city’s renowned orchestra in their beautiful Powell Hall. Concert patrons stood before a performance of Brahms’ Requiem to sing their own kind of requiem for the young man killed this past summer in an apparent display of police racism, using an old union organizing song called Which side are you on? St. Louis protest, Washington Post

Last summer during my sabbatical I had the privilege of working with a renowned conducting professor who said to our group of eight professional musicians that we should always have a large choral work in our lives that we are studying, thinking about, perhaps with the goal of conducting it someday, perhaps just with the goal of unlocking it’s pull on us through analysis. I took that to heart and recently pulled out a score of Mozart’s Grand Mass in C Minor, which is probably the first big choral work I ever sang, as a young teenager. This never completed work seems to have been part parental appeasement (Mozart had just married Constanza against his father’s wishes) and in larger part written as a protest “song”.

The Archbishop and Emperor during Mozart’s life were men of “The Enlightenment”…and perhaps just a bit controlling too. They had decreed that music was a merely decorative art and the people should not be puzzled by musical complexity. In 1783 the Archbishop in Salzburg asked Mozart for a “people’s mass” – a work without solos or fugues that didn’t call attention to itself and lasted under 45 minutes. Ever the enfant terrible, Mozart’s response was his Grand Mass in C minor – an hour-long work with fugues galore, florid operatic solos, and a “Shakespearean range of emotion” (Lloyd Schwartz, NPR, 1/25/06). In other words, complex music written to command a listener’s attention.

When one person protests he is called a prophet (or crazy). When Mozart protests he is called a genius. But when many people protest it becomes a movement. I’d like to avoid being labeled as crazy, and genius or prophet aren’t likely attributes, which leaves being part of a movement. The goal for any protest is justice and the goal for justice is love and beauty, however those might be defined. You don’t have to look far to find injustice, and your song of protest, whatever form it takes, might just start a movement.


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2 Responses to Songs of Protest

  1. says:

    Every useful protest song is future-oriented, not just angry but truly redemption-focused (“Behold, I am doing a new thing: do you not see it?”). “We Shall Overcome” is part of the fiber of my being, but one shining moment came after we sang “Lift Every Voice” at seder. A woman who had been raped came to us in tears, to say she’d heard God in that song, so she now understood that God knew the horrors of what she’d been through and was leading her to “the harmonies of liberty.” My own personal experience, after the worst time of my life, was Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, the new thing God did in him after the composer was vilified and condemned, when he finally turned from the past to the future. In that music, I heard everything I had suffered — converted into shining hope. thank you for today’s reflection, pat

  2. Eileen says:

    Sonya a thank you from this admirer of the sixties —- where are the Bob Dylans of today? Bravo to the people in St. Louis —- bravo to Mozart — who knew he had that kind of soul.

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