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.”
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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.