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THE FOLK GENRE is rich with songs of protest: Pete Seeger’s We Shall Overcome and Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ come to mind. But what about classical music? Do the longhairs ever express their dislike musically?
Yes, I can think of three. Please do add your favorites.
Franz Joseph Haydn is recognized as the Father of the Symphony. Indeed, he wrote 104 of them between 1759 and 1795. Many have acquired nicknames: Symphony No. 22 The Philosopher, for its first movement’s question and answer motifs; No. 94 The Surprise, for its abrupt audience-jarring fortissimo amidst the calm of its second movement.
His Symphony No. 45 in F# minor is nicknamed The Farewell, but it could equally be called We’ve Had Enough!
For much of his career, Haydn worked under the patronage of Nicholas I, Prince Esterházy, whose extravagance earned him the sobriquet “the Magnificent.” The prince enjoyed time in his summer palace at Esterháza in rural Hungary. And, of course, he required Haydn’s orchestral entertainment throughout his stay.
In the summer of 1772, it was Nicholas’ pleasure to extend his stay, much to the displeasure of the musicians missing their families back home in Eisenstadt. Haydn’s protest written into his Symphony No. 45 was a subtle one (Nicholas was prince, after all), but it was ultimately successful.
In the symphony’s last movement, on cue each of the musicians stopped playing, snuffed out the candle on his music stand and walked out. At the end, there were just two muted violins, played by Haydn himself and his concertmaster.
Nicholas was no dolt. He, his court, Haydn and the orchestra returned to Eisenstadt the next day.
Another musical protest didn’t begin as such. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, completed in early 1804, was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, revered by the composer for embodying the democratic and anti-monarchial ideals of the French Revolution. But this reverence didn’t last for long.
On May 14, 1804, Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of the French. Beethoven was not amused, as described by his secretary Ferdinand Ries: “I was the first to tell him the news that Buonaparte had declared himself Emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, ‘So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!’ ”
Ries continued: “Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title-page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor. The page had to be recopied, and it was only now that the symphony received the title Sinfonia Eroica, the heroic symphony.”
Serge Prokofiev’s protest was a complex one, yet in a way a safe one involving poking fun of a Russian czar. After the Russian Revolution, Prokofiev chose to leave his homeland, so it’s said with Soviet approval. Several of his adventures in France and the United States are described in “I Love Three Oranges” here at SimanaitisSays.
By the 1930s, though, Prokofiev grew homesick and sought ways to strengthen ties with the Soviets. His Lieutenant Kijé Suite evolved from a 1934 commission for film music for a Soviet comedy.
Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite was assembled from his musical score for the film. It was his first attempt at film music, his first Soviet commission and one of the earliest sound films made in the Soviet Union. The tale’s protest in the form of political satire had a particularly easy target in the U.S.S.R: a tsar.
Tsar Paul is annoyed by a dalliance between two courtiers and demands that his officials find the culprit or face banishment themselves. A clerk’s slip of the pen generates a fictitious name, Lieutenant Kijé, and this phony officer becomes the patsy.
The real culprit confesses and Kijé is pardoned by the tsar and made a colonel. The courtiers can’t admit to the original error, so they continue Kijé’s fabrication with a full history: He marries the Princess Gagarina, becomes wealthy and gets promoted to General.
When Tsar Paul insists on meeting this hero, the officials have no other choice than to announce that General Kijé has died. An elaborate funeral follows with full military honors, after which the tsar demands a return of Kijé’s fortune. The officials say he spent it all on lavish living and the tsar demotes him, posthumously, from General to Private.
A grand romp is had by all. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017