Melodies that captured times

On June 24, 1545, Hans Bluetl was tied to a stake in the town square of Ried, located in the Bavarian region of modern-day Austria. He was soon set alight by his Catholic captors and, according to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, "With great courage he endured the fiery death, singing hymns of praise until he collapsed."

Bluetl was part of a then emerging religious group known as the Anabaptists, or rebaptizers, who challenged both the Pope and kings of their day. The sect composed hymns or songs in honor of their fallen comrades and sang them in secret, lest they be discovered by authorities to meet a gruesome fate.

This was but one very early example of the emergence of music as expression in tumultuous times.

History's long path has been documented not just by historians, but by songwriters as well. World events and social changes have produced songs and artists who defined not so much the times as what the times were going through.

"Die Moldau," Bedrich Smetana, 1874, Czechoslovakia

One modern example of music as a form of nationalist devotion and later as protest is "Die Moldau" by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana.

"Die Moldau," or "The Moldau," is part of a longer, symphonic poem named "Ma Vlast," or "My Homeland," and celebrates the great rivers that run through Bohemia.

SMC jazz professor Keith Fiddmont said he has a great affinity for this piece of music.

"I love that music," he said. "That is a very good example of program music where it's inspired by an actual place where you can actually visualize the place. It's very visual. I like that."

On a summer night on June 9, 1939, as Nazi hordes occupied Czechoslovakia, conductor Vaclav Talich led the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of "My Homeland" at the National Theatre in Prague. Nazi occupation officials were in the audience.

When the orchestra performed "The Moldau" and came to its conclusion, Czech audience members, in defiance of the Nazis, stood up and together sang their national anthem in a sign of resistance.

Composer Samuel Cohen would later find inspiration in "The Moldau" for his composition "Hatikvah," or "The Hope," later adapted as the Israeli national anthem.

"Revolution," The Beatles, 1968, England

"Revolution" was The Beatles' response to the rise in violent protests and street clashes that marked the period. These were the days when young students in France paralyzed their country during the May '68 protests. The Chicago Democratic Convention saw blood run the streets of the United States when police faced off with protesters

In the song, John Lennon called for a peaceful alternative to militant action when he sang, "But when you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count me out? Don't you know it's gonna be alright?"

"The thing that attracted me was not the lyrics until much later in life," Fiddmont said. "I have to admit that they were profound. They had great insights into the era in which they were living."

SMC student Alexander Hymes discussed The Beatles and the impact of their music for him.

"The most meaningful group is The Beatles; they are the best band of all time, in my opinion," he said. "They evolved with time and talked about war. They talked about love. They talked about peace. They started off singing stupid love songs then evolved into telling stories like 'Revolution.' 'Revolution' is the perfect example of everything."

Hymes said he is disenchanted with the way music has gone in the 21st century.

"The political movement in music has dissipated," he said. "You used to see this when war occurred, when things actually mattered. Today they sing about how many prostitutes, how much money or cars you have in your driveway."

"Anarchy in the UK," Sex Pistols, 1975, England

As the Flower Power of the '60s faded away, punk music roared into the scene with riffs and lyrics proclaiming a new generation of anarchic rebellion and defiance of the status quo.

Few bands capture this period like England's Sex Pistols. Led by Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, the opening apocalyptic lyric, "I am an Antichrist; I am an anarchist," stuck in the popular culture as an example of the punk revolution's unabashed style.

At the time, the band's manager Malcolm McLaren said it was "a call to arms to the kids who believe that rock 'n' roll was taken away from them. It's a statement of self-rule, of ultimate independence."

Dismissing the hippie anthems and folk sounds of the '60s, the Sex Pistols snarled lyrics like "Don't know what I want but I know how to get it; I wanna destroy," encapsulating the mood of young people feeling alienated.

So dangerous was their music seen that the band was banned across the U.K., and record stores pulled their albums. Their follow-up single "God Save the Queen" was pulled from the British charts, charting at number one in the country, with its name erased from the chart listing, leaving a blank space instead of the song title.

SMC student Hannah Contreras, a major punk rock fan, said she enjoys wearing her shirt with the name of the classic punk band The Ramones.

"My dad grew up with punk music, and I basically grew up with it," she said. "It's mostly about expressing yourself. It's about expressing yourself against the government. That's what attracts me to punk music. You're putting yourself out there and your thoughts."

Contreras said today's music scene seems to churn out senseless product.

"Music nowadays is completely different," she said. "It's like whatever kind of makes sense, let's just throw it out there. Music has changed a lot. Why can't we go back to expressing yourself, like writing a poem and singing it?"

Albums like Green Day's "American Idiot" continue to carry the thread of punk rebellion and social commentary. The album expresses anger at the George W. Bush administration, the war in Iraq and the overall state of America.

"I love 'American Idiot,'" Contreras said. "I went to see the Broadway version and it was so good. When [the album] came out I was little and didn't really get the political message, but on Broadway I saw the catch. It talked about 9/11 and how the government is corrupting people. I see the point. That's what I like about punk music."

"Fight the Power," Public Enemy, 1989, United States

Long before Jay-Z and Kanye West, Chuck D, Flavor Flav, DJ Lord, Khari Wynn, and Professor Griff of Public Enemy were topping the charts with songs that spoke to the trials of the inner city and a system that still made the impoverished feel neglected.

Public Enemy's seminal anthem "Fight the Power," composed for director Spike Lee's urban drama "Do the Right Thing," took a stark, African-American view of America and its society, dismissing Elvis as a significant icon.

"We've got to pump the stuff to make us tough; from the heart, it's a start, a work of art to revolutionize," the song proclaims. "Fight the power. We've got to fight the powers that be."

"It was very profound when it first came out," Fiddmont said. "It's still relevant. When you put that on, it still resonates. Hip-hop has a long tradition of people who understand their part in the continuing legacy of African-American music, and I appreciate that."

Ninel Sarceno said she loves hip-hop that is fused with social commentary and revolutionary power.

"I love their political agenda," she said of Public Enemy. "It was a lot of music that at the time was unheard of."

Sarceno said she also admires more recent hip-hop artists, particularly from the underground, who continue the Public Enemy legacy like Immortal Technique, who rap about Third World struggles and American political issues.

"Our basic thing should be about integrity and honesty, about approaching art honestly," Fiddmont said. "That's the great thing about music; you can't cheat off anybody. Everything is your personal expression. You have to express yourself, and bringing to it an integrity and honesty is what I try to bring to my students and a sense of history. It will be profound. You can't help but be profound."

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