16 Celebrated Classical Compositions That Contain Themes Now Considered Problematic

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Classical music, the bedrock of cultural heritage, consists of works celebrated for their artistic brilliance and the depth of emotions it conveys. Compositions written a few decades or even a century ago hold very different notions and views that clash with modern society. These may range from stereotypical representations, ethnic blunders, and even violence bestowed in the historical context. Here are 16 such classical compositions:

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Carmina Burana

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There seems to be a problem in your music if Nazis start taking a liking to them and start adopting them. The same was the case with Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana ” composed in 1936, which gained a significant amount of popularity during the Nazi regime. The work is based on the medieval age with themes of fortune, fate, and sensual pleasures. However, Orff’s political stance has troubled many, and the political affiliation may have been an excuse to use the artist as propaganda against Jews.

Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien

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Claude Debussy must have had excellent intentions while writing this musical play “Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien ” which, unfortunately, for better or worse, did not nurture well. Released in 1911, the musical play narrated the tale of the life of Saint Sebastian, a Roman soldier persecuted for his Christian faith. There were problems due to the librettist of the play, Gabriele D’Annunzio, having fascist affiliations that complicated the work’s legacy. The Vatican bans this piece of work for romanticizing the suffering of the saint and erotically portraying him.

Symphony No. 7 in E Major

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It seems like the Nazi propaganda machine adopted several classical compositions and misinterpreted them in a negative light to support their absurd ideology. When Anton Bruckner wrote Symphony No. 7 in E Major in 1884, it was a masterpiece that captured his Catholic faith and passion for German ideals. However, as the Nazi regime grew, they perceived the song as a symbol of support for the values they propagated. It tends to be very controversial to this date for these associations and Bruckner’s indirect political involvement.

Madama Butterfly

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The relationship between the United States and Japan goes back a long way. Giacomo Puccinni’s opera narrates the story of Cio–Cio (Madama Butterfly), a Japanese woman who fell in love with an American naval officer during the war. The man abandons the girl, and the song perpetuates the tragic emotions of the woman, filled with sadness and sorrow.  This depiction of the women viewed as hopeless and submissive is considered problematic in modern society, where women are empowered and not in the waiting role.

Porgy and Bess

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George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” was criticized for reinforcing racial stereotypes despite his using an all-black cast. The composition, released in 1935, set in the African American community in South Carolina, conveys the story of Porgy, a disabled beggar, and his love for Bess despite his poverty and drug addiction. It would be rejected today for a patronized view of African American life due to the element of racism that is often seen through the lens of white paternalism.

Samson et Dalila

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One has to be very cautious while presenting a religious story that could be controversial and offensive to most people. When Camille Saint-Saëns’ biblical opera “Samson et Dalila” premiered in 1877, it captured the love story of Samson and Deliah. It revolves around Deliah seducing Samson to find the source of his strength, which eventually lies in his hair. This would be problematic in present times for its orientalist elements, which showcased the Philistine culture in an exotic fashion and exaggerated portrayal of the Middle East.

Scheherazade

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Maurice Ravel’s Scheherazade, a name of Arabic origin, drew inspiration from “One Thousand and One Nights.” Composed in 1903, it transports its listeners into a classical Middle Eastern world of the Arabian Nights accompanied by themes of exoticism and sensuality. It uses harmonious orchestration and evocative lyrics that reflect yet another common Western fascination with Middle Eastern culture, which is more conservative, a depiction that would not be acceptable today.

The Merry Widow

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Franz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow”, narrates a comical tale of Hanna, a wealthy widow from Europe who must remarry to keep her fortune in her homeland. Many modern-day feminists and women view this as a verbal ingenuity that translates to her being forced to marry a man, as he was the one who held all the fortune in previous times.

New World Symphony

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Some may argue that adequate knowledge of a subject is essential, even regarding a superficial vision or personal impression. Antonín Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” was a vision of a peaceful world between people influenced by Native American Music and African American spirituals. Unfortunately, the symphony directly quoted spirituals that were not accurate, leading to a superficial understanding of such cultures.

Carmen

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The Romani people were most affected because of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” which was released in 1875, degrading a gypsy by seductively characterizing her. Her life and actions due to her sexual desires and tumultuous relationships eventually lead to her downfall. The hypersexualization of Carmen as an indecent woman is an indirect attack on the Romani women who were not viewed with respect, contributing to a history of marginalization.

The Ring Cycle

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The Ring Cycle, or Der Ring des Nibelungen, was composed by Richard Wagner and is a monumental four-opera cycle based on Norse Mythology. However, although this composition captured the themes of love and power, none was attributed to the Jews that Wagner hated. This composition has an anti-Semitic undertone in characters such as Alberich and Mime and was later co-opted by the Nazi government. This personal prejudice and anti-Semitism would lead to the cancellation of Wagner in present times.

Aida

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Released in 1871, Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida” has faced immense backlash for portraying the Ethiopian princess as subservient and taken advantage of. The princess, enslaved in Egypt, falls in love with a military commander and thus begins a story of romance, loyalty, and cultural conflict. Aside from the fragile character of the princess, this composition is also problematic for its colonist views alongside the mysterious “Middle East” punctuated with barbaric people.

Salome

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Many classical compositions were made against the tyranny of the church to reflect the suffering and oppression of the people. Richard Strauss’s opera, “Salome,” composed in 1905, dramatizes the biblical story of Salome’s demand for John the Baptist’s head. Her seductive “Dance of the Seven Veils” makes this a provocative and intense composition that offended many people back then and even today. The church criticizes it for its sensationalized treatment of the Biblical character coupled with violence and crossing religious boundaries.

Miraculous Mandarin

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We have read countless examples of women being lured into the trap of men, but it gets exciting and brutal, and vice versa. The sexual violence, triggers, and graphical explicit content depicted in Béla Bartók’s “Miraculous Mandarin” is shocking to everyone to this date. When three thugs force a girl to lure wealthy men into caves to rob them, a rich Mandarin has no other option for escape than to indulge in a hypersexualized erotic dance. This work’s unsettling theme and human depravity raise questions about ethical implications in terms of human suffering and torture.

Lulu

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Alban Berg’s opera “Lulu ” took about six years to complete, after which it was launched in 1935, reflecting the darker side of human nature. This beastly side that we like to keep in secrecy is what Carl Jung would have described a century later. The composition revolves around a woman whose sexual desires lead to the death of all the people who indulge with her, including herself. The themes of sexuality and extreme power dynamics leading to the death of characters would make this composition highly controversial.

Die Fledermaus

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“Die Fledermaus” was an operetta written by Johann Strauss II that already faced criticism for its departure from more traditional operatic styles, including dialogues rather than catchy melodies. It is a celebrated piece of art set in a high-society Viennese milieu, revolving around misunderstandings and comic assertions at a lavish masquerade ball. However, when viewed from a modern lens, it would be considered problematic for its class stratification and gender roles. The act of infidelity in the operetta, disguised under the element of comedy and acceptance, sets a very wrong example.

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