Angela Cockburn explores the music of uprising

On Sunday 11 July – which is as close to Bastille Day as a Sunday Special could get – I’ll be taking a look through the centuries at what composers do when the People take to the streets. You’ll find Paris gets more than its fair share of idealistic violence – it’s those narrow streets, so easy to barricade. London doesn’t really figure, in part because the People – in the shape of the House of Commons – were already represented in Parliament from 1341, and in part because the People – in the shape of the Lord Mayor and his Aldermen – controlled who could and who could not enter the walled City.

When you start to look at how composers interact with revolution on their doorstep, there’s a range of responses, which, on the whole, match up with the different ways of making a living from music.

The rawest, and arguably some of the most powerful music appears to come from the People themselves: or at least from the musicians they’d hear in the tavern or playing dance music at a wedding. It’s catchy, you can roar it out while marching along, and the words seem to reflect popular sentiment, though sometimes the words are chosen (or changed) to manipulate popular sentiment instead. The Marseillaise and We Shall Overcome fall into this category.

Other composers are inspired by the cries of Liberty and Freedom to create major works in support of the uprising of the day, sometimes using a choir to capture the raw feel of the revolutionaries in the street, but still employing classical musical conventions. Smetana had already written his Song of Freedom when he helped man the barricades in Prague in 1848, and Strauss’ Freedom March comes into this group, too.

After the event is when the major works start to be created, often commissioned by whichever side won. Berlioz, who wandered out to see what was going on during the three days of the 1830 revolution (taking his gun with him just in case), wrote his Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale ten years later. He was paid a lot of money by the government to celebrate a regime he didn’t really approve of and created a massive work for military bands to perform as they processed in the streets where the revolutionaries had fought. Wagner, who rather over-enthusiastically took part in the Dresden uprising (despite working for the local royal court at the time) thought the Berlioz work was unsurpassable.
Clara Schumann, also caught up in the Dresden revolt, made a brave foray into the streets on a family rescue mission, and created one little musical comment that same year setting the song Forwards.

The most expansive works are those written for fictionalised accounts, and of course that includes the music created for film and stage versions of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, a work which explores the humanity behind the politics, the despair, and the bravado. Honneger and Claude-Michel Schönberg both created some memorable music that brings that sprawling story to life.

Join me – Angela Cockburn – for all this and more: Composers in Revolt starting in 1588 and finishing around 1968.