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Top Five Pieces For The 99 Percent

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The future of two-month-long Occupy Wall Street movement, which inspired demonstrations against the American capitalist system, is uncertain after police cleared protestors out of out Zuccotti Park early Tuesday morning. While expensive concert tickets and exclusive galas might suit the upper crust, many composers might have sympathized with the protestors’ populist ideals (others veered even further left toward a Marxist revolution). Here are our top five works for the Occupy Wall Streeters:

1. Verdi: "Va, pensiero"

Scholars may disagree whether Verdi intended his famous chorus “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco to be an Italian nationalist anthem; but it’s been a rallying cry among his proud countrymen since the opera’s successful premiere. Italians, then living under Austrian rule, saw parallels of their own struggles in this chorus of displaced Hebrew slaves yearning for their homeland. The call to sing “Va, pensiero,” even resonates today: during a Nabucco performance last spring, Riccardo Muti invited the Rome Opera audience to sing along in an encore to show support for national arts funding.

2. Copland: Into the Streets May First

Aaron Copland saturated his compositions with populists sounds and idealist subjects in works such as Fanfare for the Common Man and A Lincoln Portrait. However, those works are tame compared to the choral work Into the Streets May First. Copland set Alfred Hayes’s poem of the same title to music and published the final piece in the Marxist magazine The New Masses. The somewhat dated lyrics are sympathetic to the OWS cause, imploring listeners to “shake the midtown towers” and proclaiming “down with the bourgeoisie.”

3. Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra

Bela Bartok wrote his Concerto for Orchestra, during World War II while in self-imposed exile from his native Hungary and dying of leukemia. Yet the work expresses his optimism in the resilience of men, as well as his hope for “peace and brotherhood for the world.” One of Bartók’s masterpieces, the Concerto embraces myriad musical influences from Gypsy dances to even 12-tone excerpts, and distributes solos to practically every instrument in the orchestra. “The Concerto might be a tribute to the pluralism that Roosevelt’s American in its ideal form embodied,” writes Alex Ross in The Rest in Noise. It “is a portrait of democracy in action.”

4. Andriessen: Worker's Union

A protest organizer might find parallels between his work and Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union. The 1975 piece for a “loud-sounding group of instruments” Andriessen writes, “is difficult to play in an ensemble and to remain in step, sort of thing like organizing and carrying on political action.” The Dutch composer achieves this intent by giving the musicians specific rhythms to play, but the musicians must choose the pitches. The result, writes the LA Phil’s publicity coordinator Jessie Rothwell, is “like Steve Reich with his hand in a meat grinder.”

5. Gay: The Beggar's Opera

One of the earliest works to appeal to the masses rather than the elite, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera  satirized rarified Italian operas making inroads into England. Gay pilfered tunes from popular folk music and his contemporary composers and patched together a ballad opera about the thieves, murderers and prostitutes of the under classes. Between the antiheroes, the popular tunes and a scathing critique of the then-British prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, The Beggar’s Opera became wildly popular. About two centuries later it inspired the equally popular musical social commentary in Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera.