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."

In choosing a theme for the commission, Mr. Scribner says, "We never seriously contemplated anything other than something that celebrates our Earthly home. It's a subject that's absolutely universal and unifying. There are many political views about the Earth, but no one disputes the fact that in some way, shape, or form we have to take care of our home."

The concert is a work in seven movements. Symphonic choruses are based on texts, and four of the movements are poems by the poet Wendell Berry, who was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2010. According Mr. Scribner, the poetry of Mr. Berry "forms the heart and soul of the piece."

The work is ambitious, and Mr. Kortekangas finds inspiration in a fellow Finn composer. "The music of Jean Sibelius was really a key factor in [Finland's] struggle for independence in the early 1900's. He didn't set out to be a national composer and hero, but as a sensitive person he reacted to what was happening and foresaw and impacted what was going to happen." Mr. Kortekangas quotes Mr. Berry, saying, "[Sibelius] wrote the pieces that gave the rest of the Finns 'the feelings for their obligations'."

Classical music of late has suffered under the bone saw of budget cuts to the arts and humanities. "It's been devastating to us," says Mr. Scribner. "Devastating. For three years now, we've been unable to be as imaginative and daring as we'd have liked. A commission like this is a shining example of being able to poke through the disabling cuts and find enough to maintain some kind of allegiance to our lofty goals of bringing to the community not only old music, but also aiding and abetting new music. But omnipresent throughout the artistic community is a sense of serious distress."

Renowned musician Marta Istomin, on her leaving the post as Artistic Director of the Kennedy Center, said what Mr. Scribner describes as perhaps the most profound definition of classical music he's ever heard: "Music is entertainment, that's for sure, but it is so much more."

The third movement of Seven Songs for Planet Earth is a Berry poem. His words, with the music of Olli Kortekangas, will leave no doubt as to the wisdom of Ms. Istomin.

On May 22nd, the world will understand exactly what "so much more" really means.

Sowing the seed, my hand is one with the earth.

Wanting the seed to grow, my mind is one with the light.

Hoeing the crop, my hands are one with the rain.

Having cared for the plants, my mind is one with the air.

Hungry and trusting, my mind is one with the earth.

Eating the fruit, my body is one with the earth.