From the beginning, our conception of destruction is diametrically opposed to our ideal of music. However, the power of music, in fact, lies in its connection to destruction. The most meaningful music stems from destruction, or destroys the status quo that preceded it.
Destruction gives music a purpose. Music flourishes during times of strife and oppression because it can act as a tool to unite people through emotion and bring them towards a common goal. In this way music can reveal injustice, demonstrate the artist’s opinion, and, most importantly, show us that we are not alone.
The power of destruction to inspire the creation of music is exemplified by the Polish national anthem. The piece was written after the Third Partition of Poland (1795), in which the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was once again divided among Prussia, Russia, and Austria, and Poland ceased to exist as a country. The work — entitled "Poland Is Not Yet Lost" — is a powerful example of the Polish spirit that remained despite Poland’s nonexistence, and its popularity demonstrates the significant part that oppression played in unifying the Polish people. The opening verse states: “Poland has not yet died,/ So long as we still live./ What the alien power has seized from us,/ We shall recapture with a sabre.” This message of Polish nationalism inspired bravery in the oppressed Poles who had previously been silenced and showed them that their views and feelings were shared. Born from the destruction of their homeland, the anthem unified the Poles and connected them based on feelings of a shared national identity.
The protest songs of the Industrial Workers of the World are a further illustration of art stemming from destruction. Throughout the early 1900s, the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, fought for workers rights. They battled laws and companies that forced industrial workers to labor in awful conditions under laws that were exploitative. In his famous folk anthem "There Is A Power In A Union," the famous IWW, or “wobblies,” union member Joseph Hillstrom called on his fellow workers, saying: “Come, all ye workers, from every land /Come, join in the grand industrial band; … ” Like the Poles a hundred years earlier, Hillstrom fought against the power structure, connecting people through a mutual sense of inequality and injustice.
When music breaks outside of traditional bounds, it conveys its message much more powerfully. This destruction of the status quo shocks the system, but ultimately draws more attention to the music, and allows the artist to illuminate difficult — and sometimes previously undiscussed — topics and taboos. Examples of this are embedded in history, as these pieces of music are the moments that make history. One example is the famous Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, and the opposition he faced throughout his career. Shostakovich's music was so bombastic and glaring that during a time in his life called The Great Terror (1936), Stalin ordered Shostakovich’s close friends and family imprisoned or executed in an attempt to force Shostakovich to stop composing. Despite this, Shostakovich refused to change or stop writing his music and is now lauded as one of the great Russian composers and considered one of the most influential Russian artists ever.
Another famous example is Leonard Bernstein's musical West Side Story. West Side Story took the classic tale of Romeo and Juliet and applied it to New York City in the 1960s. It displayed the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets as a racial dispute between two gangs, a controversial move which highlighted a struggle that many upper class theater goers of the time had previously ignored. Additionally, West Side Story was the first Broadway musical to depict murder and suicide onstage. Despite these risky artistic choices the musical was a huge success, and Tony and Maria’s (the tragic fated couple) story resonated with many shocked Americans. Bernstein and Shostakovich's work changed the face of music because it challenged the status quo.
These relationships to destruction demonstrate its important and perhaps even necessary role in the creation of music. A happy ending in a novel or movie bears no weight without the contrast of previous hardship. Just as the turmoil of a deep, red sunset is often more beautiful than your average sunny day, beauty cannot exist without suffering and pain.
Caroline Hochman is 17 years old and lives in New York City. Her favorite subject is history, and her hobbies include playing violin and playing baseball.
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