Inside the Classics: Speaking Truth to Power

Inside the Classics: Speaking Truth to Power

By Sam Bergman, viola and host of Inside the Classics

When conductor Sarah Hicks and I set out to create an entire concert of protest music for the Minnesota Orchestra, the first challenge we ran into was that we would never be able to come close to including all the music that deserves inclusion on such a program. Most political music, of course, isn’t written for a full symphony orchestra – much of it is created by people struggling under the thumb of oppression, with little hope that their work will ever gain wider recognition. This is music born not of a desire for applause, but of a bone-deep need for amplification, recognition and hope.

What we are highlighting in our July 28 Inside the Classics concert, Speaking Truth to Power, is a strange corner of the universe of political music – fully realized symphonic works composed by people of relative privilege and comfort, as an effort to highlight the struggles of those less fortunate. They’re wonderful works of art, these pieces, and we’re immensely proud to be bringing them to the stage of Orchestra Hall. But there is so much more to listen to, and this playlist is intended as a small sampler to get you started down the road. Some of the music here is “Classical”; much of it is not. What these works all have in common, though, is a desire to promote justice; to throw light into the darkest corners of humanity’s all-too-regular inhumanity; and to lift the human spirit in such a way as to inspire us to do better.

Come Out by Steve Reich

“I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.” With these harrowing words, spoken on tape by a young black man beaten by New York police in 1964 and subsequently jailed for nine years, composer Steve Reich utilized then-new tape looping technology to create a work of art highlighting injustice and brutality in a way that felt like a gut punch to all who heard it. Reich was an avant-gardeist at the time; today, he is celebrated as one of the most influential composers of the last half-century. In 2016, Pitchfork published an outstanding essay celebrating the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Come Out. Read it here: https://pitchfork.com/features/article/9886-blood-and-echoes-the-story-of-come-out-steve-reichs-civil-rights-era-masterpiece/

Paul Robeson: Here I Stand

Most of this playlist consists of individual songs and other musical works. This, however, is a full-scale documentary film released in 1999 about one of the greatest musicians and activists of the 20th century. Singer-actor Paul Robeson more or less gave up his career for his beliefs, which centered on the idea that black Americans were being systematically oppressed by a white majority that expected thanks for ending slavery while erecting new walls of oppression and brutality at every turn. He was also a dynamic labor activist in an era when the labor movement itself was rife with racism. Through it all, his rumbling, captivating bass voice was never silenced, and generations of young Americans (myself included) were raised on his songs, which became a gateway to his moral activism.

Manafiesto by Victor Jara

I first learned of Victor Jara through a song by the American folksinger Arlo Guthrie, and I vividly remember my eyes going wide when I heard the verse of that song in which Guthrie listed out the specific tortures that Augusto Pinochet’s government thugs subjected Jara to before shooting him dead in 1973 as an example to others who would dare stand up to the Chilean dictator’s brutal regime. Guthrie described Jara’s life as “like a shooting star… his hands were tender; his hands were strong.” Tenderness and strength are both audible in Manafiesto, Jara’s powerful tribute to musical activism. In the penultimate verse, he sings (in Spanish, of course) “A song has meaning when it beats in the veins of a man who will die singing, truthfully singing his songs.” Jara would die in just such a manner, but his legacy was beyond the reach of even the terrifying Pinochet.

Adrian by Mason Jennings

Inspired by Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, this song by Minneapolis singer-songwriter Mason Jennings is somehow both harrowing and sweet. It tells the tale of a black man who, about to be lynched, somehow still finds the internal strength of character and godly spirit of forgiveness to tell his son to not give in to rage, but instead to carry his memory like a torch for others to follow. “As they set my last breath free / Turn your eyes but don’t fail to see / The love you feel inside your skin / We don’t fear death, my Adrian.”

Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday

And here is another view of the American lynching story, told through the unmistakable voice of one of the country’s greatest ever singers, Billie Holiday. It can be easy to forget how brave it was for Holiday to begin performing this song in 1939, especially now that it’s been taken up by several subsequent generations of performers. The lyrics are stark and brutal and almost clinical in their description of the unspeakable violence committed against innocent African-Americans by white mobs that were allowed to overrule every shred of human decency on their way to establishing…what? Superiority? Fear? Hopelessness for the black underclass? Holiday lays the truth of the matter bare in this song that still shocks and silences us today, with its barest of instrumental accompaniment and its refusal to turn away from the truth of what we are capable of.

Survivor from Warsaw by Arnold Schönberg

We don’t think of Arnold Schönberg as a particularly emotional composer most of the time. The 12-tone system of composition that he pioneered is, if anything, often parodied as anti-emotional, a sort of mathematically obsessive black hole of music, from which no traditional tonality can escape. But Schönberg’s music was, in fact, an entirely understandable (and even restrained) response to the overwhelming darkness that descended across Europe in the first half of the 20th century, and he felt a great responsibility to guide the next generation of European musicians toward a new musical tradition that would overcome the sins of the past and (his) present. In Survivor from Warsaw, Schönberg sets to music the words of a Jewish survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, but the story is related entirely in spoken text, a profoundly unusual and attention-grabbing decision for the time. The harrowing piece ends with the choir singing the Shema Yisrael, as if to say that no amount of hate can truly erase our basic humanity.

Brooklyn Train by Lucy Kaplansky

This may seem like a strange choice for this playlist, as it isn’t really a protest song, or even nakedly political in any specific way. But those of us old enough to have watched the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 unfold will never forget the chaotic swirl of anger and fear that emerged in our country in the days and years that followed. The art that came out of 9/11 was similarly chaotic, even schizophrenic – country singer Toby Keith scored a major hit with a testosterone-fueled tirade, while composer John Adams was celebrated for his massive symphonic remembrance of the victims, On the Transmigration of Souls. Keith’s and Adams’ works will both be remembered as instructive historical documents of what America was like in that fraught and revenge-obsessed era, but for me, there will never be a more quietly perfect summation of what post-9/11 life in America was like for most of us than Lucy Kaplansky’s jewel box of a song describing a simple subway ride in the heart of the city that bore the brunt of the attacks on that sunny September morning. “Down below on iron veins / Rolling waves of subway trains / Rails of mercy cross the lives of men / Safe in the body of New York again.”

Sam Bergman

About the author

Sam Bergman joined the Minnesota Orchestra in 2000. In addition to performing as violist, he serves as host and writer for the Orchestra’s Inside the Classics concert series; he has also hosted or narrated the Orchestra’s Young People’s Concerts. Read his full bio »