Civil Disobedience Through Music

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX



Civil disobedience is defined as the refusal to obey certain laws or governmental demands for the purpose of influencing legislation or policy. More and more in recent years it has become a national question whether teachers and artists should be allotted a voice when it comes to political and social issues. It should be noted that several famous composers of music history made an enormous splash in their communities with demands for drastic changes to the social construct. Ludwig van Beethoven, for example, was one of the first major composers to demand respect and pay as an individual employee rather than as a household servant (the standard social standing for musicians of his time). It is thanks to his bellicose efforts that so many of us can make a living off of performance or music education alone. Just as there were musicians who loudly expressed their disdain for the status quo, however, just as many slipped their political agendas into their compositions. These works later became anthems for national political movements and earned the composers national fame.


The March of the Women, Ethel Smyth   

Worldwide, women protested for the right to vote, and therefore the right to political representation, for the majority of the 1900’s. The activists, known as suffragettes, staged relentless protests, speeches, and marches demanding a political change in their countries. The first nation to enfranchise its female citizens was New Zealand in 1893, closely followed by Australia in 1902 and Finland in 1903 (Women Suffrage and Beyond). In the United States, women did not earn the right to vote until Congress ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920.

Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), originally from London, was a political activist and internationally recognized composer. She had the opportunity to study music at the Leipzig Conservatory (1877-1890) and worked with musical giants including Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Clara Schumann, Dvorak, and Brahms (Britannica). Her three most lasting works, are the The Mass in D (1893), and the two operas, The Wreckers (1906) and The Boatswain’s Mate (1916). She also became the first female composer to premiere an opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City with her piece Der Wald in 1902. As a political force, Smyth served as an active member of the women’s suffrage movement in England and was even imprisoned for a brief period for throwing a rock through the window of the Houses of Parliament. Not to be silenced, even behind bars, however, she famously conducted a live performance of The March of the Women with her jail-mates at Holloway prison in 1912 (Service). By her death in 1944, Smyth had earned an honorary doctorate from Durham University (1910) and was the first woman composer to be honored as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1922).

The March of the Women was written in 1911, using lyrics by Cicely Hamilton, and dedicated to Emmeline Pankhurst. It is the final movement of Smyth’s work Songs of the Sunrise and was first performed by the London Symphony Orchestra in 1911. After being referred to as a “call to battle” by the suffragette newspaper, Votes for Women, the work quickly became the official anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union in Britain (Service).

"Shout, shout, up with your song!
Cry with the wind, for the dawn is breaking;
March, march, swing you along,
Wide blows our banner, and hope is waking.
Song with its story, dreams with their glory
Lo! They call, and glad is their word!
Loud and louder it swells,
Thunder of freedom, the voice of the Lord!"

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Finlandia, Jean Sibelius

Finland is an eastern European country with a total population of 5.2 million and an area of 303,815 square kilometers (World Atlas, 2013). According to the Finnish Department for Communications, the nation was originally ruled by Sweden and recently conquered by Russia in 1809 as a result war. During the next approximately one hundred years, known as “The Russian Period,” there was a sharp rise in Finnish nationalism both politically and socially. This movement began to gain serious momentum in the mid-1800’s with the development of The Finnish Diet (1863), The Language Decree (1863), and The Conscription Act (1878). Tensions continued to mount between Finland and Russia for several more decades before culminating into the 1905 Revolution and the official Finnish declaration of independence in 1917. 

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) was a Finnish composer best known for his unique tendency to blend Romanticism and Nationalism. Sibelius explored several genres including works for chamber ensemble, chorus, keyboard, seven symphonies, and one opera (Cummings). His most enduring works are Kullervo Symphony (1892), En Saga (1892), Four Legends (1895), and Finlandia (1899). Despite being an international sensation by age thirty, Sibelius lived a surprisingly quiet life in Helsinki with his wife, Aino Järnefelt and only occasionally traveled to nearby countries like Germany (Cummings).

Finlandia, Op. 26 was completed in 1900 and first performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic Society, conducted by Robert Kajanus, at the Paris World Exhibition of 1900 (Schwarm). The one-movement tone poem lasts approximately eight minutes and was originally titled Finland Awakes (Schwarm). Sibelius composed the piece for the Finnish Press Pension Celebration of 1899 as part of a protest against increasing Russian censorship of the Finnish media (Schwarm). Lyrics were later added to the Finlandia Hymn by opera singer Wäinö Sola in 1937, and the more popular version, by poet V.A. Koskenniemi in 1939 (Department for Communications, Finland). Sibelius arranged his own version of the hymn for mixed choir in 1948 as the country once again struggled to avoid Soviet rule (Department for Communications, Finland).

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Tom Service. (2015). Political Pieces: 10 of the Best. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media

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Editors. (2018). Dame Ethel Smyth. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. Web.

          25 June, 2018. <>


Department for Communications. (2017). Main Outlines of Finnish History. Finland Promotion

          Board. Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Department for Communications. Web. 25 June, 2018.