So you say you want a revolution?

“Amour sacré de la patrie” (“Sacred love of fatherland”), from the grand opera La muette de Portici, by Auber

Detached from its original context, this exhilarating marchlike number could serve as many contradictory purposes as could patriotism itself, teaching government and governed alike that works of art could be freely appropriated, in an age of mass dissemination, for use as political weapons. It became customary for audiences to applaud the revolutionary duet with special show-stopping fervor, turning the occasion into a virtual antigovernment demonstration. What the nineteenth century learned from the grand opéra was that works of art could be dangerous. They were dangerous not necessarily by design but by virtue of their ambiguity – and, consequently, the different ways in which they could be used. In an age of emergent mass politics, music had become a potential rabble-rouser. Opera could now not only mirror but actually make the history of nations. In extreme cases it could even help make the nation.  (III, 212)

Listening to this blandly rousing little number today without knowing its history, it could easily be taken as more quaint than revolutionary. Yet Auber’s 1828 opera was anything but harmless; indeed, with a message of both patriotism and anti-government ardor, La muette de Portici (“The mute girl of Portici”) stirred up all sorts trouble (and made its proprietors all sorts of money in the process).

The opera came to the French stage at a politically tense time, when the fear of another revolution was acute. The very possibility, not to mention the popularity, of this opera, then, pose an interesting question: in an age of extreme government control of the arts, how could an opera about insurrection pass muster with the censors? The fact of the matter is that Portici was a cautionary tale portraying revolutionary activity as an invitation to mob rule and chaos (or at least this is how the government interpreted it). They may be singing about revolution, but in the end we all know what messy business revolution can be. The message, as RT points out, is deeply ambiguous, and French authorities banked on a mass interpretation that would bolster state power. It would be like Glenn Beck doing punk rock.

Of course, any public musical utterance is an interpretive crap shoot. Independent of the composer’s (and the censor’s) design, a work takes on its own meaning as it is used by real people in their historical moment. RT’s last line above may seem like an overstatement, but in 1830, this tune indeed played a major role in the foundation of a modern state, Belgium. It would not be an exaggeration to say, as RT implies, that this music was “weaponized” by the French-speaking Belgians in their uprising against Hapsburg rule. During a performance of the opera (which the nervous government heavily redacted), “Amour sacré de la patrie” served as the cue (or was it a spontaneous reaction?) for mass revolt. Upon hearing this tune, the inflamed audience poured into the streets, storming major Hapsburg strongholds, including the armory, and eventually wrestling power from the overseers. This Brussels performance makes the infamous Rite of Spring debut look like a rave dance party by comparison.

Shifting gears slightly, reading about incidents like this (and any of the other famous riots in music history), I can’t help but wonder about the state of music as a cultural force today. It seems fairly impossible that any piece of music in any genre in contemporary America would have the social power, and the consensus, to inflame the passions so radically. Auber’s opera was a mega-hit: it spread to every corner of society, and although its message was ambiguous, its reach was ubiquitous. Is anything comparable even possible now? The way we listen to music today is too fragmented, too diffuse, for any one cultural product to take hold of the collective imagination the way Portici did. Revolutionary politics is still an active force in music-making, of course, but few would argue that it has the ability to truly shape revolutionary activity. (Try imagining a crowd at a Rage Against the Machine concert spilling out of the auditorium and capturing the White House.) Are we too savvy today to fall pray to musical propaganda? Is the music just not as rabble-rousing as it once was? What do you think?

1 Comment

  1. In the US, we don’t live in a climate that really calls for revolution to begin with. Political music tends to make arguments for a niche political view anymore or it simply takes on subjects that don’t matter to a great number of people. These things combined with the fact that we can hear these sentiments in music all the time, everywhere, every day, subdues the effect it could all have. That’s my guess anyway. If we lived in a country already in turmoil and a large group of people, feeling this turmoil, went to a concert where they hear this message for the first time, maybe we’d have revolution. As it is, it seems riots a la Woodstock 99 are the closest thing we’ll see.

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