Music, Politics, and Patriotism: When Art Takes Sides

Politics, propaganda and war. Salute to the Red Army, Royal Albert Hall, London, 21 February 1943.

Politics, propaganda and war. Salute to the Red Army, Royal Albert Hall, London, 21 February 1943.  This image was created and released by the Imperial War Museum of the United Kingdom Government.

Music and politics often conflict with each other. Although music can express basic human emotions like joy and sorrow, it can also act as a rallying force for the military or as a propaganda tool to instill a sense of nationalistic pride.

Music as a Political Tool to Inspire – The Patriotism of Music

As historian William R. Trotter points out in Military History Magazine’s The Music of War, people have probably used music as an instrument of war as far back in human history as war itself.

Drums and bugles or trumpets rally the forces and inspire the troops to ‘give it their all’ to ensure victory. And, after the battle, win or lose, the survivors use music to mark the occasion – to celebrate great victories or mourn devastating defeat.

Trotter writes: “Music has been an integral part of warfare and the soldier’s life since the dawn of history. Even the instruments on which it is played have themselves acquired great symbolic power — a regiment’s drums are second only to its colors as an emblem of honor and tradition. In the 18th century, the act of enlisting was described as ‘following the drum.’ The function of music in war has always been twofold: as a means of communication and as a psychological weapon.”


Battle, Triumph, and Music

According to Thayer, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote his inspirational Wellington’s Victory at Vitoria Opus 91, Battle Symphony (premiered 1813) to note the Duke of Wellington’s victory on June 21, 1813, in which he defeated Joseph Bonaparte at the Battle of Vitoria in Spain.

The first performance, a concert benefiting wounded Austrian and Bavarian soldiers, was an instant success. Beethoven had created a crowd-pleaser that would delight audiences for generations to come. His combination of battle sounds and invigorating battle music drives the composition to a dramatic conclusion.

Other battle pieces were notorious in their commemorative spirit. The Kennedy Center’s “Sounds Historic” series explains that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) 1812 Overture celebrated another victory against Napoleon. Written in 1880, the composition commemorates Russia’s defense against Napoleon’s invading armies at Grande Armée.

An inspirational work, the 1812 Overture (which has nothing to do with the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain) is frequently used to bolster national pride and the spirit of nationhood in many countries around the world, not just in Russia. In fact, musicians frequently perform the work in firework displays, especially during Fourth of July celebrations in the United States.

According to Keith T. Johns in The Symphonic Poems of Franz Liszt, Franz Liszt (1811-1886) composed Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns) as a symphonic poem, inspired by the painting Die Hunnenschlacht, a painting which depicts a legendary battle of the Catalaunian Fields between the Huns and the Romans.

Liszt’s composition uses ominous and sombre undertones to suggest the ferocity of this battle that Johns described as earning the reputation for being so fierce that the souls of the dead soldiers continued to fight as they rose to heaven.

Music and the Power to Influence

For all its inspirational sentiments, the works by many Classical and Romantic composers have also served to challenge various political forces throughout history. While Beethoven composed his Wellington’s Victory at Vitoria Opus 91, Battle Symphony to celebrate victory, the Exploring Arts Foundation notes that some of his other compositions have since been for a variety of political reasons, particularly during the Second World War and for both opposing forces.

The British used the opening notes of Symphony No. 5 (1804-1808) as a Morse Code secret message that meant “V” for Victory. According to Exploring the Arts Foundation, “This code is vocalized by forming the sounds dit (for dot) and dah (for dash) as dit-dit-dit-dah in rapid succession, with the stress placed on the dah. By a fortunate coincidence, the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony sound this exact musical pattern. As a whole, the Fifth Symphony is a rousing piece of music, seemingly a sober call for action and victory, just what was needed for wartime motivation. It was to be expected, then, that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony would become the musical symbol of victory throughout the Allied world.”

The irony that Beethoven was German was not lost on the British forces. On the other side, the Germans also made good use of Beethoven’s work. According to Nicholas Alexander Brown in his Masters Thesis titled “The Third Reich vs. An die Freiheit: Opposing Uses of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 20th Century German Society,” Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, the Choral Symphony [completed in 1824] held a unique place in German history, serving as a gauge of the socio-political climate from the mid-nineteenth century to the present.”

Interestingly enough, as Brown points out, this same work that once promoted the Third Reich dogma, was used again as “a valuable tool for the parsing of German national identity” when Leonard Bernstein led the performance in 1989 to celebrate the Reunification of Germany.


Music Challenges The Mind

Music continues to challenge, to inspire and to make one think as well as feel. And, in so doing, music may also run into conflict with the political ideals and powers of the day and of the country. 

Pleyel Pianos Closed Production: Changing Face of Musical Instrument Production

Pleyel promoted the upright piano in France.

Pleyel promoted the upright piano in France. Image by Morn Gryffindor.

While China continues to make things cheaply and quickly, many western countries see a decline in manufacturing. Sound like big industry? Well, yes, it is. But it also includes the manufacturing of musical instruments. The well-reputed, centuries-old classical instrument builders, particularly piano builders, are disappearing at an alarming rate.

For companies like the major Canadian piano builder, Heintzman, the solution for survival is either merge with a Chinese company or to close down entirely, as the French company, Pleyel, recently chose to do.

As of the end of 2013, Pleyel, the only brand of piano that Chopin would play, will no longer manufacture their instruments. What’s Pleyel’s story – and how does this change affect music around the world?

Pleyel et Cie: Pianos

Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731), a harpsichord maker in the court of Ferdinand de’ Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany, in Padua, Italy, built the first actual piano sometime between 1700 and 1710.

The rise of the middle class saw a greater demand for musical instruments, particularly pianos, in every household. By the end of the nineteenth-century and well into the twentieth-century, piano building was big industry. From 1890 to 1925, in Canada alone, there were over a hundred piano builders advertising the importance of a piano for every household. Piano building was big business.

It was into this big business that Pleyel made its contribution and quickly developed a prestigious name for itself.

Pleyel developed the double piano in the latter part of the nineteenth-century.

Pleyel developed the double piano in the latter part of the nineteenth-century. Image by Morn Gryffindor.

Composer Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831) founded Pleyel et Cie, the Paris-based piano manufacturing business, in 1807. His son, piano virtuoso Joseph Etienne Camille Pleyel, joined him in 1815. The partnership produced player pianos and introduced the upright piano to France. The company was so successful that they employed 250 workers by 1834 to manufacture over 1000 pianos annually.

According to 200 Years of Pleyel, these pianos were the instruments of choice for Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), Joseph-Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Manuel de Falla y Matheu (1876-1946), and Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (1882-1971), among many others.

Pleyel was once so successful that they were able to invest in instrument experiments like the Double Piano (patented as Duo-Clave) built in 1890. They were the first company to actually build two pianos into the same frame. It built a small number of these instruments between 1890 and the 1920s.

What Makes a Great Piano?

The quality of a piano, indeed that of any musical instrument, is as much a result of the quality of the formative materials as it is the craftsmanship and care of its creator. Pleyel was a leader in quality piano building, creating an excellent instrument with great acoustic qualities.

Making Pianos Affordable for Everyone

Pleyel closed its doors at the end of 2013. According to Eleanor Beardsley at National Public Radio (PR), former piano builder and current piano store owner Bruno Canac says, “Pleyel was an emblematic brand with 200 years of history.

To survive, some think that piano builders need to work with China. Olivier Colin, a pianist and founder and CEO of Colmann, France’s one remaining piano builder, told Beardsley, “The key to success is selling pianos for the low market as well as the high. To do that, you cannot make your piano entirely in France, as Pleyel was doing. We need to work with China, because we don’t work with only rich people. We have to sell pianos to people who don’t have a lot of money. If we make the piano only in France, the piano will be more than double the price.”

Beardsley notes that Colin “started the company in 2004. He says it has become the top-selling brand in France, just behind Japanese success story Yamaha.” If one French company, and a newer one at that, can compete in the world market of fine pianos, then why can’t the historic names like Pleyel?

Pianos and the Changing Face of Music

Pleyel describes their pianos as “acquiring a special satisfying quality, the upper register bright and silvery, the middle penetrating and intense, the bass clear and vigorous.” Other pianos, including the Yamaha and the Kawai and other Chinese, Japanese and Korean makes, also describe similar qualities. The value of the piano’s sound and the quality of the instrument itself is not just in the nameplate attached. But history does bear significance.

In 2007, France’s Minister of Economy, Finance and Employment designated Pleyel a “Living Heritage Company.” In 2012, Pleyel was awarded the Prix de l’Excellence Française.

While piano virtuosos, teachers and students alike will lament the loss of Pleyel pianos, they treasure those that remain. Pianists will similarly appreciate other pianos for their fine qualities, but the loss of a big name like Pleyel in the piano manufacturing world is significant. Sadly, it is yet another example of excellence in industry being shuffled to areas where production costs are cheaper (at least for now).

Do You Know Every Christmas Song?

Christmas trees are the spot for local caroling and festivities. Image by Alsandro.

Christmas trees are the spot for local caroling and festivities. Image by Alsandro.

Tired of the Christmas music piped relentlessly into the void of public buildings? Bored from hearing the same old songs over and over again? How about a refresher course on the once-popular and now little-known songs of yesteryear? Like Nat King Cole singing “The Little Boy That Santa Forgot” (1937)? Or Bing Cosby singing the heart-rending lyrics ofI’ll be home for Christmas” (1943)?

The Popular Music of Christmas Past

In music, we find everything from religious to sentimental secular and downright hilarious. In 1937, Michael Carr, Tommie Connor and Jimmy Leach collaborated on a touching Christmas song, “The Little Boy That Santa Forgot.” Many great performers sang it over the years, but Nat King Cole’s version is perhaps the most sentimental rendition.

            He’s the little boy that Santa Claus forgot,

            And goodness knows, he didn’t want a lot.

The lyrics speak volumes for the downtrodden and forgotten children of Christmas. Does it sound familiar? Actually, it’s not entirely forgotten in popular culture.  Jim Belushi sang a portion of this song for the 1996 film  Jingle All the Way, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Popular Music of Christmas Present

From the sentimental to the humorous, there are quite a few old novelty Christmas songs that have stood the test of time. Bing Crosby originally sang and recorded “I’ll be home for Christmas” (1943). Its sentimentality intensifies when one appreciates the full meaning of this song to the many men and women fighting the Nazis. 

            Christmas Eve will find me

            Where the love light gleams

            I’ll be home for Christmas

            If only in my dreams

            If only in my dreams.

So many of those brave people never made it home, for any more Christmases. Yet, they would sing this song deep from the heart and feel as if they were with loved ones, even though they were thousands of miles and an ocean away. The song continues to make the eyes water, the lyrics having deep meaning for people around the world.

A more humorous song from about the same time is Donald Yetter Gardner’s “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” (1944). It’s still popular today as children relate to the loss of their baby teeth.

            All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth,

            my two front teeth,

            my two front teeth,

            see my two front teeth.

            Gee, if I could only

            have my two front teeth,

            then I could wish you

            “Merry Christmas!”

This song maintains its popularity, promoted by Alvin and the Chipmunks, the Three Stooges, and, of course, Sesame Street.

A more recent old novelty song isGrandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” (1979), written by Randy Brooks. In spite of its humorous theme, it also contains a warning that is timeless:

            I’ve warned all my friends and neighbours

            Better watch out for yourselves

            They should never give a license

            To a man who drives a sleigh and plays with elves.

            Grandma got run over by a reindeer

            Walkin’ home from our house, Christmas Eve

            You can say there’s no such thing as Santa

            But as for me and Grandpa, we believe!

Popular heart throbs of each generation create their own Christmas songs or reuse songs from the past. Nasri and Adam Messinger wrote the song, “Mistletoe” (2011), which quickly became a popular hit when Canadian singer, Justin Bieber, who included it in his Christmas album, Under the Mistletoe (2011). It almost made the top 10 list in the United States with its touching love lyrics:

            It’s the most beautiful time of the year,

            Lights fill the streets spreading so much cheer,

            I should be playing in the winter snow,

            But I’mma be under the mistletoe.

The Popular Music of Christmas Yet to Come

As popular musicians continue to make their mark on the music world and to attract a listening audience, the lure of Christmas music will continue to produce new classic favourites. How will these songs of the future stand the test of time? No one knows yet.

For Mitchell Kezin, it was the lure of Christmas music from the past that attracted him and started him on a journey of musical discovery that resulted in a personal documentary film, “Jingle Bell Rocks!” A visit to a vintage record store and the discovery of an old vinyl record of classic Christmas music started Kezin on his journey.


Vinyl Records: Music Before CDs

Vinyl records, created long before CDs, inspired him. There’s a treasure trove of music, Christmas and other popular favourites, locked away on these old vinyls, just waiting for someone to re-awaken their hidden treasures.

It’s through looking at our past and re-visiting the favourites of our grandparents that we will learn to appreciate the musical themes of Christmas. Kitschy, quirky, sentimental and sometimes funny, these songs often warm the listener with the spirit of the season.

Piano playing can be a very dangerous business. Image by tkoscak.

Noise Pollution: Could Practicing The Piano Can Land You in Jail?

Piano playing can be a very dangerous business. Image by tkoscak.

Piano playing can be a very dangerous business. Image by tkoscak.

Noise pollution is everywhere. The jet plane coming in for landing sounds like it’s landing on your rooftop. The teenager next door has loud music and loud, late night parties. The motorcycle gang down the street love to rev their engines at all hours of the day and night. And that’s not all. Now courts may consider a pianist, practicing her piano as softly as possible, a conduit of noise pollution!

Practicing the piano has taken noise as a criminal offence to a whole new level, at least in Spain, where a neighbor recently took a  27-year-old woman to court over alleged psychological damage caused by the piano music, played softer than a spoken conversation. The prosecutors charged the woman and her parents, with whom she lived, with psychological damage and noise pollution, seeking a conviction for all three for over seven years in jail. All for playing the piano!

Music Complaints Through History

Has music ever before caused such a stir? Actually, it has. When Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) debuted his ballet, The Rite of Spring, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in 1913, people actually rioted. Nothing went to court, but public opinion was rampant with strong negative sentiments.

Governing authorities and laws have often controlled music, using the power of music to promote their cause. Hitler and the Nazi regime is a prime example of music’s subjugation for a political cause. Nazi-approved music had to fit specific standards for inclusion in public performances.

“Good” German music included works by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), whose powerful German melodies spoke to the German leader as a man who possessed the heroic German spirit. Richard Wagner’s (1818-1883) music was also among Hitler’s favourites. Its serious German sentimentalist paralleled Hitler’s political views. It was also well-known that Wagner had written a violently anti-Semitic booklet in the 1850s, Das Judenthum in der Musik, which suggested that the Jews poisoned public taste in the arts.

The Nazi party used Wagner’s work and his beliefs in the 1930s and 1940s as propaganda tools against the Jews. There were others whose music the Nazis claimed supported the Nazi cause or banned because it threatened the rise of Nazism.

Music has always experienced a rocky road of acceptance or rejection. Personal preferences affect what people are willing to accept without anguish or ;undue psychological damage’ as with the woman in Spain.

Piano Player’s Case in Spain

The entire country of Spain is known for its exuberant noisiness. People constantly complain about street and bar noise. What is unheard of, however, is complaints about piano practicing, especially complaints of a musician who is a professional concert pianist and not a child beginner banging away on scales and chords.

The complaint came from Sonia Bosom, who claimed that she suffered from the noise pollution of piano practice between 2003 and 2007 when Laia Martin, who lived below her in the northeastern town of Puigcerda, practiced five days a week for eight hours each day. Martin argued that she only played at home on weekends, doing most of her practice in other towns where she had regular music classes.

Years of psychological injury, the prosecution argued, has contributed to multiple medical issues including insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks and gynecological problems.  All this from listening to piano practice.

Martin’s family, accused of allowing  their daughter to play piano music at 10 decibels higher than the 30-decibel limit for musical instruments,  soundproofed their apartment on several occasions, all to no avail. The complaints continued.

Piano Case Concluded

And the verdict? The case of the piano-practice pollution has now concluded – the judge acquitted the Laia Martin and her family, citing a lack of proof.

What Makes Mozart So Great? Bringing the Classics to the General Public

Mozart, the prodigy, at age 14 in Verona. Painting by Saverio dalla Rosa.

Mozart, the prodigy, at age 14 in Verona. Painting by Saverio dalla Rosa.

Classical musicians know what makes a composer great. They study the masters and perform their works time and again. But what about the rest of the world? Does the ordinary person really appreciate the true power of music? The power of the classical greats, that is? Not to belittle the contemporary popular music styles, but one really can’t experience the true power of music until one is totally immersed in it; until one receives the guidance to understand and to unleash its full potential.

Classical musicians around the world try to do just that.

Composer and conductor Robert Kapilow hopes to inspire listeners of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to revel in the wonders and mysteries of classical greats like Mozart.

Peggy Hills, Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Society of Mississauga, takes classical music into the classroom to inspire young minds to observe, to listen, to appreciate and, hopefully, to understand.

Are they alone in this quest? Who else ventures down this path of revealing great music to the likes of ordinary people who only want to listen to contemporary popular music styles?

The Power of Music in the Classroom

Understanding music, any kind of music, requires some rudimentary understanding the construction and evolution of music – who wrote it and why. This is where music can and should be part of the educational curriculum. Peggy Hills points out in the Chamber Music Society of Mississauga that, “exposing your kids to the arts while they are young helps ensure they appreciate arts and culture when they are older.” Her programs reach out to people of all ages, creating and combining music with dance, story and visual expression to bring music alive, to make all who listen understand and appreciate the power of the music.

Robert Kapilow, in his recent pop concerts with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, has the same goal in mind – demystifying the great classics. It’s really quite simple. Music, as a language, a means of expressing thoughts and emotions, needs only to be broken down into understandable pieces. “We need to break down the artifice,” Kapilow points out in The Star. “Music is filled with humanity and emotion. Just as theatre needs great audiences, music needs great listeners. You don’t have to know Italian, German or French. All you have to do is listen.”

What a concert, a musical performance, really needs is involvement. People need to be and to feel engaged in the whole experience; they need to be invited “inside the music.” Children danced in the aisles at a recent concert at the Lincoln Center in New York, horrifying the organizers. They shouldn’t be horrified. As Kapilow points out in The Star, the children’s “response to the music showed that they were listening and really hearing it.”

Music to the Masses: Historically Speaking

This idea of bringing music to the general public is certainly not new. Composers have long explored means of making their musical accessible, understandable and appreciated by all.

The English composer, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), wrote his orchestral showpiece, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1945), with that idea clearly in his mind.

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) wrote his Carnival of the Animals (1886) as a fun piece to entertain his young students and to bring them into the music.

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote his beloved Peter and the Wolf (1936) with the intent of cultivating musical tastes in children.

And the list goes on.


We, as humans, seem to need never-ending stimulation in the form of constant entertainment in order to fulfill our lives, our souls, our very being. We tend to believe that music from the Classical greats is beyond our meager sense of understanding. But it isn’t. The power is in the music. All we have to do is listen, to really listen. As Peggy Hills points out in the CMSM, “Music is the instrument that develops young minds!” Music is also the instrument that enriches the soul and enhances the minds and capabilities of all of humanity.


Crawford, Trish. What Makes it Great?: Composer demystifies Mozart with a series of Toronto concerts. (2013). The Toronto Star.
 Accessed November 12, 2013.

CMSM. Chamber Music Society of Mississauga. (2013). Accessed November 12, 2013.