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Lauren Sander
Dr. Franz
Music Historiography II
30 April 2016
Music: The Fuel to the Fire
Want to know how to start a fight? Start making provocative or unheard of music. Even
in a room filled with “civilized” people (such as Stravinsky’s premiere of “Rite of Spring” in
Paris in 1913) music will drive people against each other for various reasons. It was a successful
method in many instances throughout history, whether planned or unintended. Nevertheless,
music has the power to divide a society.

The people in attendance of the Rite of Spring premiere are technically an audience than
a society, but they still are a sampling of the upper-class European culture in 1913. Therefore,
one could consider them to be a focus group in an experiment. Given they are a random selection
of a specific demographic in a relatively isolated and controlled environment; they could be
considered a representation or experiment of society. The crowd’s uncivil reactions to the ballet
production were so strong the police were called, and the choreographer had to shout the dance
steps from backstage. The fact that tensions between opinions of primitivism in music and
dancing rose so high many fights broke out shows that even in a small audience of what society
claims to be filled with ‘gentlemen and women’ music can easily cause a divide in society.

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Also going on in the early twentieth century was World War I and the Nationalist
movement in Europe that fueled it. During this time there was a desire from each country to have
their own unique national identity and sound, which turned countries against each other in a
contest of which country is most superior. It caused intercountry cultural divides as well, like the
emancipation of Norway from Sweden in 1905, and the Hungarian revolt against Austrian rule.
Each culture was distinct, and that distinction was most often carried through music, especially
through revolutions and cultural divides. Music in this time was a great surrogate for a national
identity because it held the culture’s language in the words, ethnic musical background in the
mode, and revolutionary pride in the libretto.

Verdi’s “Va pensiero” libretto was used in the patriotic effort to unify the states on the
Italian Peninsula to create Italy. Even though the revolutionaries were successful by 1871 with
Rome becoming the official capitol, there still was a huge divide in opinion over unifying the
country. A large population of the states across the peninsula wanted things to stay the same, so
by hearing the music coming from the fiery revolutionaries, they became more angered as time
went on – eventually escalating to war. The rebels were so motivated by “Va pensiero” because it
was about the Jewish population breaking free from King Nebuchadnezzar, which they related
their freedom from separation of the states. Even in an effort to unify a country, music played a
heavy role in a movement in Italy that wasn’t well-received.

It was also during another war where music took the knife and cut up a society like a
watermelon. This time, during the Vietnam War, the popular music of America surfaced anti-war

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vibes for a generation of people just beginning to become adults in a world full of war. America’s
placement of troops in Vietnam was already being questioned by a large sum of the population,
including many famous bands at the time, like Credence Clearwater Revival. Out of rage against
the government they wrote songs like “Fortunate Son,” which is about the unfair disadvantage
the poor had over the rich during the draft. Their music style (already popular at the time) sent
out their anti-draft message nationwide, encouraging people subconsciously to agree with them
and their beliefs. This strengthened the anger and tensions of both sides of people for or against
America’s involvement in the Vietnam War because people who listened to that music grew even
more enraged about the times they were in, and those opposed were angered by the promotion of
“Anti-American” music because it didn’t support the choices the American government made.

Another American example of music’s divisional powers occurred in the early 1950’s
with the birth of Rock N’ Roll. American teenagers at the time had to previously sit with their
family and listen to family-friendly music with their parents because there wasn’t the technology
to make music portable and more private, therefore there wasn’t a market in the music business
for just teenagers. When the stronger and smaller 45’ record came out, music became more
personal, and now teenagers can listen to their own music in their room, away from their parents.
This also worked when the transistor radio became a common feature in vehicles because
students could now drive out of the house and listen to music without their parents while out on
dates or with their friends. The music business was completely aware of this change in
technology and began broadcasting more stations on the radios to this new market of people.
Parents were very unhappy about Rock N’ Roll’s rising popularity. They believed it was ‘music
of the devil’ due to its explicit lyrics and sexual nature; Big Mama Thornton’s song “Hound

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Dog” with its explicit lyrics covered by the sexual icon Elvis Presley is a famous example. With
parents wanting their kids to stay away from this music and teenagers wanting to question
authority while drawing towards the music they like, a generation gap was created. The new
music drew teens apart from their parents in the American family society of the 1950’s and
1960’s.

Musical works played many roles in society throughout history. They provided a new
musical perspective with “Rite of Spring” and Rock N’ Roll. They also sided on both sides of
war; promoting it during the Italian Unification in the late 1800’s, and discouraging it during the
Vietnam War. Music even provides a sense of identity during the Nationalist movement before
World War I. But no matter the purpose, music still holds the hidden power to break opinions and
divide society. The societal strength of music is proven throughout history; therefore it will
continue to prove its heavy influence on life in the future. It will challenge the morals of cultures,
dividing sides to escalate into a fight.

Works Cited
Wikipedia. “Va pensiero” Wikipedia.com Wikipedia. 19 March 2016. Web. 25 April 2016.
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Va,_pensiero>

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Wikipedia. “Italian Unification” Wikipedia.com Wikipedia. 23 April 2016. Web. 26 April 2016.
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_unification>

Wikipedia. “Nabucco” Wikipedia.com Wikipedia. 14 February 2016. Web. 25 April 2016.
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nabucco>

Education Department. “1950’ The Beginnings of Rock n’ Roll” Saatchi Gallery Contemporary
Art in London. Web. 20 April 2016. <http://esto.es/rock/english/history.htm>

Green, Aaron. “The Rite of Spring Riot of 1913” About.com About. 17 April 2016. Web. 24 April
2016. <http://classicalmusic.about.com/od/20thcenturymusic/qt/rite-of-spring.htm>

History Channel. “Nationalism and WWI” Online Video Clip. History, History Channel. 2016.
Web. 25 April 2016 <http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/world-war-ihistory/videos/nationalism-and-wwi>