The recent uprising in Egypt prompts us to think of the most significant musical compositions that have helped fuel revolutionary thought and fervor throughout history, and in one case actually ignited the overthrow of a government. With Bastille Day upon us, here are five standouts.
1. Daniel Auber: La Muette de Portici
La Muette de Portici by Daniel Auber is thought to be the only opera to directly spark a revolution. During the opera's Aug. 25, 1830 performance at La Monnai in Brussels, a riot began—whether it was an impromptu reaction to the work or a premeditated act is still up to debate—marking the start of the Belgian Revolution. In fact, the spark that ignited the revolution can be traced to the arias "Amour sacré de la patrie," (Sacred love of the Fatherland) whose title is a direct quote from the revolutionary French anthem, the “Marseillaise.” In December of that year, Belgian became independent of The Netherlands.
2. Hans Werner Henze: The Raft of the Medusa
The 20th century composer Hans Werner Henze produced a prolific amount of work throughout his life in numerous styles, but in the mid-1960s he created an output of overtly political works, none more so than Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa). Inspired by both student uprisings and a trip to Cuba, the work was a requiem for Che Guevara. Prior to the performance, students raised a poster of Guevara (which officials ripped down) as well as a red flag over the stage, prompting the Chorus to chant in unison: "We will not sing under the Red Flag." Fearing a full-fledged riot, police shut down the concert, and the work premiered three years later.
3. Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro
A more subtly, but no less revolutionary work, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and the original Beaumarchais play is credited with helping topple the French monarchy. Having been banned in France in 1784, the play was adapted into a comedic opera as librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte toned down the political plot lines to help get the subversive story past the Viennese court censors. However, the opera, which premiered in 1786, was an immediate success, and its tale of Count Almaviva's comeuppance certainly didn’t silence anti-monarchists.
4. Verdi: Nabucco
When Verdi's opera Nabucco premiered at La Scala in March 1842, the tale of the Jews struggle for freedom from the rule of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, it registered with the Milanese audience, discontented living under Austrian rule. The chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, "Va pensiero," was adopted as a national anthem (which is still invoked today for political purposes). Six years later the first of two wars for Italian Independence from Austria would begin. Right: Nabucco from La Scala (photo: Rudy Amisano/Teatro alla Scala).
5. Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 "Eroica"
Originally intended to commemorate the ideals of the French Revolution and the man who Beethoven thought embodied them, the composer initially named his Symphony No. 3 the Bonaparte Symphony. However, the work unintentionally became an anti-imperialist declaration after Napoleon crowned himself emperor, and Beethoven, scandalized by the gesture, retitled the work Eroica, or the “Heroic” symphony.