Music, Jacques Attali writes, is prophecy. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible—it heralds the future. A long tradition of philosophical thought has considered music to possess the capacity of creating, shaping, and transforming societies. Music is thought to express and produce order and disorder, to create and transgress laws, to hold power over the masses and to speak directly to each individual. Music has long served as a banner for identitarian and nationalist projects; over and again, various forms of propaganda have entrusted to it the task of translating affective attachments—to one’s homeland, ethnicity, or class—into political action. But just as we experience these effects, the actual political agency of music is hard to quantify, to channel into a secure means of social change. What, then, is the power of music? How can we understand and harness it? What histories does it tell? How are we to hear its prophecies?
A recent, spectacular articulation of these questions is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton, which will serve as our main thread for the course. Hamilton brings together musical theater, opera, and hip-hop to treat a historical subject, inviting us to think about music as a means for political action. By controversially casting black and Latino actors for the main roles, it questions the way the means of representation transform our experience of history and its subjects. Significantly, it poses the question of who is a revolutionary subject and what identities are represented in—and excluded from—revolutionary and political acts of foundation. Is a largely non-white cast a form of re-writing history or does it contribute to obscure real historical conflicts and characters? And why, as some critics have pointed out, isn’t the representation of women as revolutionary as the other aspects in the musical?
To approach these issues we will listen to the American and French Revolutions along with the musical transformations in the history of opera that preceded them and which amplified their resonance. We will read classic (and revolutionary) texts on political philosophy—Machiavelli’s The Prince, Rousseau’s The Social Contract and the Federalist Papers—alongside works by revolutionary composers Monteverdi, Rameau, and Miranda. We will explore the relation between philosophy, music, and social transformations from various critical (Marxist and Feminist) perspectives to test Attali’s thesis that “music is prophecy.”