Can Classical Music Save the World?

Symphonies affected social change in Beethoven's day—can they make the same impact in the 21st century?


Joe Portnoy

Ludwig van Beethoven so admired the ideals of the French Revolution that he wrote a symphony for the man who most embodied it. Few composers could push the boundaries of music and sway the passions of the listener as much as Beethoven. That piece would be to the concert hall what the Revolution was to society. There is a famous story, however, that upon learning Napoleon had declared himself Emperor of France, Beethoven reached for his pen and struck the dedication from the piece. "Bonaparte"--Symphony No. 3 in E flat major--became known simply as "Eroica." The second movement, a funeral dirge inspired in part by Beethoven's deteriorating hearing, might well have symbolized the deterioration of the Revolution's egalitarian promise. When Napoleon died in 1821, Beethoven sneered, "I composed the music for that sad event some seventeen years ago."

History is replete with examples of classical music acting not as a passive reflection of the times, but as a force for social change. Dmitri Shostakovich, arguably the greatest composer of the 20th century, so frightened and infuriated the Soviet regime with his works that according to biographer Elizabeth Wilson, "he waited for his arrest at night out on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn't be disturbed."

If classical music has declined in cultural influence, nobody has told the concert hall. The tradition of Beethoven and Verdi and Shostakovich is set to continue at the Kennedy Center on May 22nd, when the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra present the world premiere of Seven Songs for Planet Earth by Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas.

Now, it seems, more than ever, it is impossible to consider the natural world without thought to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or the ongoing nuclear catastrophe and tragic loss of life in Japan. Seven Songs for Planet Earth is a reflection on nature and its fragility, and is a call to action.

"Any work of art," says Mr. Kortekangas, "whether it's realistic, abstract, or even conceptual, is an act in itself, more than doing nothing, and can serve as an example, can stir the listeners' imagination, evoke emotions."

Though the piece was composed before the recent ecological devastations, Mr. Kortekangas takes a much larger view of humanity's relationship with nature. "I've been interested in environmental issues for decades. So whatever's happened this or last year doesn't have a direct connection to what I've written. New problems unfortunately arise. It's inevitable. Disasters keep getting bigger, I'm afraid."

He looks to his home country. "At present, Finnish organizations and authorities are working hard to save the Baltic Sea, which got in a bad shape in only a few decades." He adds with nostalgia, "Now, this interests me a lot because I've spent my summers by the Baltic Sea since childhood, and at present live there half of the year."

Norman Scribner, the distinguished Artistic Director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, says, "Our mantra is two-fold: celebrating the past and embracing the future. It's a permanent philosophical commitment to the ongoing presence of classical music in our lives, and why we carry forth the tradition of this category of music. Classical music addresses the deeper spiritual values of our existence and strives to encapsulate our culture in the highest possible way."

Presented by

David W. Brown is the coauthor of The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Generally published under the pseudonym D.B. Grady, Brown is a graduate of Louisiana State University, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, and a veteran of Afghanistan. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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