Weill and Brecht’s “Three Penny Opera,” set in Victorian London, satirized traditional opera and operetta (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)
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Music has undeniable power, but can it cause a riot—or a revolution? Governments, institutions, broadcasters, and individuals have often sought to silence works they considered subversive. Even the most celebrated of composers have found themselves the target of outrage and censorship for a wide variety of reasons. (Too political, too sensuous, too crude, too nationalistic, too abstract.) Pope Clement XI even banned public opera performances altogether, claiming they promoted lascivious behavior.
Today, it’s hard to understand what all the fuss was about. How can sounds be seditious, and why should we even care? Lecturer and concert pianist Rachel Franklin looks at several once-controversial musical works and the uproars, scandals, and even brawls they inspired during their times.
Examine why Mozart’s delightful The Marriage of Figaro was considered almost treasonous by the Austrian aristocracy. Did Beethoven’s Fidelio, with a political prisoner as a protagonist, promote revolution? In 1899, performances of Sibelius’s beautiful and highly patriotic “Finlandia” were threatened by the country’s ruling Russian authorities. The 1913 Paris premiere by the Ballets Russes of Le Sacre du Printemps, set to Stravinsky’s daringly modern score, ignited yells, jeers, and fisticuffs among its well-dressed (and confused) audience. And is the mordant “Mack the Knife” from The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Becht a song that celebrates a murderer?
British-born Franklin has been a featured speaker for organizations including the Library of Congress and heard on NPR, exploring intersections among classical and jazz music, film scores, and the fine arts.
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