Orchestra Victoria Blog

Music and Protest: Khachaturian, Spartacus and a Revolution or Two

Posted on 2 August 2020 by Karen Schofield | Associate Principal Flute, Orchestra Victoria

One of the most immediately recognisable musical examples of protest is Aram Khachaturian’s Spartacus. Depicting the process of grief turning to anger and revolt, through the character of Spartacus, we are drawn in to Roman times where Spartacus leads a slave rebellion against the Roman Republic. Born a free man, the imperial Roman army captures Spartacus and enslaves him for the purpose of satisfying the bloodlust of leader Crassus through Gladiatorial battle. In the capture, Spartacus is separated from his great love, Phrygia who is also enslaved to Crassus. The famous Adagio from the ballet is a tender, bittersweet moment made even more poignant through its juxtaposition with the powerful, driving, desperate qualities of the battle scenes which characterise the ballet. The themes infer polar representations of passion: one side of the musical coin represents the passionate desperation of fighting for both a cause and one’s life; whilst the other is a sensuous depiction of engulfing, passionate love. The driving energy of the gladiatorial themes is juxtaposed with the lyrical, soaring Adagio of the lover’s theme. The stark contrast and context of the themes serve to increase the impact of the bittersweet and heart wrenching Adagio and is arguably one of the reasons why this particular theme has become a musical representation of love that transcends death.

Through music, Khachaturian explores deeper political and philosophical ideas like unequal combat, abuse of power, and corruption in leadership. The utilisation of music in this fashion has a long history, across centuries, with music supporting, driving and celebrating revolt or dissent. Music has served and continues to serve an important role in the phenomenon of protest, certainly in the context of anti-war and anti-regime movements.

Author of Harvard Political Review, Frankie Hill, explains that ‘Anti-war songs as they are known today, developed in the United States during the build-up to World War I… contributed to an anti-war sentiment that extended from commoners to composers to congressmen’

In previous articles, we have explored the use of music as a tool for propaganda, a tool for social change and as a tool in the creation and development of identity.

Although many notable protest songs that come to mind are popular in genre, such as U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, ‘Draft Morning’ by the Byrds, Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the wind’ and Edwin Starr’s ‘War’, powerful and significant examples are entwined within the Classical music sphere.

Veteran classical 101 radio host John Rittmeyer recounts:

‘The most notable event where classical music was used as a protest was perhaps when Leonard Bernstein led a performance of Haydn's Mass in Time of War at the Washington National Cathedral on Jan. 19, 1973, the evening before Richard Nixon's second inauguration. It was called "the anti-inauguration" by some.'

Kevin Jackson and Robyn Hendricks in The Australian Ballet's 2018 production of Spartacus

Photo Jeff Busby
The Story Continues...

There are numerous other examples of classical compositions being associated with protest, rebellion and revolution:

In 1989, Students in Tiananmen Square blast Beethoven’s 9th Symphony through loudspeakers as the army tanks roll in;

The Symphony appears again that same year, yet on the other side of the world as musicians from East and West Germany join with those from America, Russia, France and Great Britain to perform Beethoven’s 9th in commemoration of the fall of the Berlin wall;

‘Tout change et grandit en ces lieux’ from William Tell by Gioachino Rossini which declares Swiss liberty from Austrian oppressors;

Symphony No.5 in D, ‘Reformation’ by Felix Mendelssohn which celebrated the 300th anniversary of the protestant reformation and split from the Catholic church;

Grande Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale by Hector Berlioz, which was commissioned to commemorate the ‘July Days’ - the uprising that led to the abdication of the conservative monarch Charles X;

And finally, back to a Russian orientation with Shostakovich’s ‘Festive overture’ composed to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the October revolution of 1917, his 11th Symphony which explored the revolution of 1905 and his Symphony ‘Leningrad’ (No.7) which became a symbol of resistance and hope during the siege of Leningrad

Now as you go about your day with the themes of the above works as earworms, there is no doubting the power of the musical elements of these incredible works and how the music serves to inspire, evoke and elicit the gamut of passionate response. Khachaturian’s score combined with the raw, visceral choreography of the ballet provides us with a vessel through which to experience and honour a relentless but necessary emotional turmoil surrounding ritual, conquest, revolt and revolution and the ensuing inevitability of loss.


Hill, F. ‘Songs of War: The Evolution of Protest Music in the United States’. State of the Art. 2016.
Rittmeyer. J. ‘Classical Music and the Vietnam War: From Lt. Dan to 'The Face of War'. WOSU Public media. 2017.

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