Throughout history, composers have let politics inform and inspire their works. Freedom is a universal human value that has triggered masterpieces by Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Italian master Luigi Dallapiccola, among others.
Mozart’s use of the line “Viva la libertà” (Long live freedom!), in the Act 1 Finale from his opera Don Giovanni has been interpreted in many ways, given the context of the opera and the behavior of its main character. Important scholars have argued that his use of this phrase was “nothing less than subversive” — as Charles Rosen puts it: “Mozart’s music at this point of Don Giovanni is not in the least erotic but political and military in character, and I assume that he was portraying the popular belief that revolutionary politics and libertinism were closely bound together, as they were, indeed, constantly from the seventeenth century until the twentieth. This does not mean that either Mozart or Don Giovanni were propagandists for democracy, but an audience in 1780 would have understood the allusion.”
What Mozart Meant: An Exchange
To the Editors: As Charles Rosen observes ["The Best Book on Mozart," NYR, October 25], everyone seriously interested…
Perhaps even more so, in Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, composed in 1786), its anti-aristocratic flavors were considered dangerous just some years before the French revolution took place. This was based on a play by Beaumarchais, which had been flagged by censors in Vienna precisely for its underlying call for social equality. Shaking up the establishment? Questioning the authority and traditions of powerful people? Attempting to free the individual from the unjust place in society that it had been subjected to due to their class? Mozart was very much inspired by these ideals especially during the last decade of his life, when he composed these masterpieces.
In Beethoven’s case, one can find several examples of his constant quest for freedom and universal brotherhood. When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, a performance of his Ninth Symphony was conducted by Leonard Bernstein and the famous “Ode to Joy” using Schiller’s lyrics was changed to the timely and appropriate “Ode to Freedom” (the word Freude was replaced by the word Freiheit). Leonard Bernstein observed, “I feel this is a heaven-sent moment to sing “Freiheit” wherever the score indicates the word “Freude”. If ever there was a historic time to take an academic risk in the name of human joy, this is it, and I am sure we have Beethoven’s blessing. “Es lebe die Freiheit!” (Freedom lives!)
Another important example in Beethoven’s case is the genesis of his Symphony №3, “Eroica”, which he composed in 1803. It has been famously reported that Beethoven intended to name this symphony Napoleon Bonaparte, and it was his symbol to fight against political tyranny (notice how the symphony begins with two massive, energetic and short E-flat major chords, as if slapping someone or at least, definitely calling for some very focused and intense attention). When he found out that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, in great disappointment (and rage) Beethoven tore up the first page of the manuscript, crossed over the “Napoleon” and instead decided to name the work “Sinfonia eroica”. He published it in 1806 with the subtitle “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man”. All references to Napoleon had vanished from it. As Phillip Huscher noted, “The subtexts — idealism and disillusionment, personal greed and the lust for power, the struggle between art and politics, among others — are intense, and they have come to overshadow one of the most remarkable, even revolutionary works of art we have.”
Here is a collection of 35 different performers and their own versions of one of the most striking openings in the symphonic repertoire (From Claudio Abbado and Sir Simon Rattle to Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter, Paavo Järvi, Riccardo Muti and many more):
Beethoven composed only one opera, Fidelio. It was written very close in time to his Eroica Symphony, during a period in which he was coming to terms with his increased deafness. Due to the intrinsic nature of Freedom as an essential aspect to this opera, it cannot be omitted from this short list. Katherine Baber notes that at its premiere on November 20, 1805, the opera’s heroic themes — suffering and resistance, free will and fidelity — must have resonated strongly for an audience subject to occupation by French troops in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. At the center of Fidelio is the love of Leonora for her imprisoned husband, Florestan. In order to free him, she submits herself as an assistant to the jailer, Rocco. Disguised as a young man (Fidelio), she first appears bearing the chains used to bind her husband and other prisoners.
Here is a wonderful performance of Fidelio conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the Zürich Opera:
Mentioning prisoners immediately takes my mind to one of the great opera masterpieces of the 20th century: Il prigioniero (The Prisoner) by Luigi Dallapiccola. Interned in the first world war and persecuted in the second, Luigi Dallapiccola had a deep hatred of tyranny. His groundbreaking music deserves to be celebrated as an expression of liberation, says Misha Donat.
Misha Donat points out that on September 1 1938, when Mussolini issued Italy’s anti-semitic racial laws, Mussolini’s views on politics changed (he had initially seen fascism favorably, just as many intellectuals had at the time). “I wanted to protest,” Dallapiccola said later, “but I wasn’t so naive as not to know that in a totalitarian state the individual is powerless. Only in music could I express my indignation.” Earlier that year Dallapiccola had married Laura Luzzatto, a Jewish woman, and the couple were forced to seek refuge in Fiesole (the hills surrounding Florence) at a friend’s villa. On the day of Mussolini’s proclamation, Dallapiccola began work on his Canti di Prigionia (Songs of Imprisonment) — the first in a series of “protest” works. The Canti di Prigionia (scored for chorus with an instrumental ensemble consisting of two harps, two pianos and percussion) sets texts by three condemned prisoners: Mary Stuart, Boethius and Savonarola. Mary Stuart’s fervent prayer for freedom struck a particularly strong chord: “I wanted,” Dallapiccola said, “the divine word libera (free) to be shouted by everyone.” Some five years later, when his only child was born shortly after the liberation of Florence from the Nazi occupation in August 1944, she was named Annalibera.
In his one-act opera Il prigioniero (composed between 1944–48, and premiered on radio on 1949), set during the Spanish Inquisition, a prisoner is led to believe that freedom is at hand. He manages to escape his cell but as he emerges into a starlit garden, only to fall into the arms of the Grand Inquisitor, he understands that all the events leading to his escape have been pre-arranged as the ultimate torture — hope. The work was indeed based on the short story La torture par l’espérance (“Torture by Hope”) from the collection Nouveaux contes cruels by the French writer Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and from La Légende d’Ulenspiegel et de Lamme Goedzak by Charles De Coster.
Here is some further reading about Luigi Dallapiccola:
Songs of freedom
On April 1 1924, Schoenberg arrived in Florence with his touring ensemble for a performance of his expressionist…
Here is my performance conducting the superb Teatro Colón de Buenos Aires Orquesta Estable in Dallapiccola’s masterpiece (a new production by Michal Znaniecki), with Leonardo Estévez as the prisoner, Adriana Mastrángelo as the mother, and Fernando Chalabe as the jailor and grand inquisitor:
Finally, I would like to reflect on the fact that I had never before felt the need to express myself politically in my own compositions. As a composer I would usually look for inspiration in a book or a poem, in a painting, in dance, in nature, or in human interaction. Last summer, though, I spent two weeks in Seoul (South Korea), learning about Korean traditional (Gugak) music, and doing research at the fabulous National Gugak Center. This immersive experience and the wonderful people I met while in Korea led me to continue researching their history, their society and their poetry. I find their Sijo poetry from the 14th century particularly powerful and beautiful, such as this short example by Chŏng Mongju:
Though this frame should die and die,
though I die a hundred times,
My bleached bones all turn to dust,
my very soul exist or not –
What can change the undivided heart
that glows with faith toward my lord?
But what I found most striking about the history of Korea is the fact that this wonderful peninsula and its people have been artificially and politically divided. Why do we have a North Korea, and a South Korea? Are people equally free in these two countries? Thus began my research for composing Unequal Freedom, an exploratory concerto for violin (or haegeum), electronics and orchestra.
I found inspiring and heart breaking letters written by family members from both sides of the border. They had not seen each other again in many decades. Most of their relatives had died. They had not been able to contact each other. During my research I found testimonies by three North Korean defectors who told their story. I found documentation — in her own words- of a South Korean journalist (who is also a US Citizen) that was detained and imprisoned by North Korean authorities, and was eventually released upon being pardoned by Kim Jong-Il thanks to former President Bill Clinton’s intervention.
The Korean Peninsula has been divided for too long a time. People from the North are taught to see those from the South as enemies, and vice versa. Families have been separated across the border due to this artificial division created along the 38th parallel. The cruelty of this political separation, the human rights violations that are related to it, and its similarities to our contemporary world hit a nerve that inevitably left me with no choice but to dedicate this piece to those people that have been victims of our politicians and their wars. Many sounds and images have gone through my mind as I got more and more involved with this project, from the image of the Berlin wall dividing Germany into two nations, to the proposal of a border wall to separate families and communities across North America.
Hyenseo Lee and Yeonmi Park are two North Korean defectors whose painful stories filled me with compassion. Euna Lee is a South Korean journalist (and US Citizen) who was kept as a prisoner by North Korean authorities, and her inspiring story is a paradigm of true brotherhood despite the heartless system. With the help of three UC Davis students (Lydia Lee, Grace Mun and Samuel Lee), and the invaluable translations of Dr. Hee-won Lee, (Professor of Astrophysics at Sejong University) I compiled and used for this piece several letters of family members that were separated across the border. These texts and speeches, as well as speeches by Donald J. Trump regarding his relationship with Kim Jong-un are the source of material for the electronics in the piece.
The piece is very theatrical, and it takes advantage of the many expansive resources that a symphony orchestra has at its disposal. Despite the dark/deep content, as you will hear, it ends on a hopeful note. It is my hope that this piece will raise more awareness of the strength that is needed to endure unsustainable situations. This is indeed a piece about freedom, and a metaphor for how different we are allowed to feel in today’s world depending on which nationality or passport we carry. As the anonymous maxim expresses it “Nobody is free when others are oppressed.”
“Freedom is fragile”, said Euna Lee in her moving TED Talk. “I don’t want to alarm you but it is…. It only took three generations to make North Korea into George Orwell’s 1984.” She proceeded: “If we don’t fight for human rights, for the people who are oppressed right now, who [don’t] have a voice, as free people here — who will fight for us, when we’re not free?”
May one day soon see the North and the South reunited again, this artificial concept of the “enemy” abandoned, in a compassionate reunification that would result in a contemporary model of human brotherhood. As Friedrich Schiller expressed in his immortal Ode to Joy (which was also repurposed by Leonard Bernstein as Ode to Freedom in 1989, as described at the beginning of this article): Seid umschlungen, Millionen! (Be Embraced, You Millions!)
Here is the wonderful Celine Jeong Kim performing my Violin Concerto Unequal Freedom, with the excellent UC Davis Symphony Orchestra at the Mondavi Center (February 2020):