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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The political pianist : protest, commissions, and programming for the twenty-first century Hopkins, Benjamin


Politics touches many aspects of modern life, from the food we eat to the products we buy and the sports we watch—as well as the music we listen to, study, and perform. Classical musicians are generally more cautious about entering political debates than popular musicians and celebrities. This caution is attributable, in part, to the historical suppression and censorship of classical musicians and composers. But classical musicians today are affected by—and are often implicated in—the systemic forces of racism, sexism, inequality, and other sociopolitical problems. In this dissertation I argue that classical pianists can and should engage in political speech and action. This study begins with a working definition of political music and surveys the history of political interference with classical music and musicians. I then outline three basic categories of political pianism: protest, commissioning, and programming. An exploration of protest highlights four notable pianists who engaged in political activism and speech. My discussion of commissions and programming critiques classical music’s structural and institutional biases towards white and male composers and contends that collaborations with composers and repertoire choices can function as political statements. The document also introduces two new piano works written by Joel Thompson and Peter S. Shin, commissioned with funding from the University of British Columbia’s Public Scholars Initiative. This dissertation is intended as a guide for pianists who wish to integrate their personal politics into their professional pursuits. Supplementary materials available at: http://hdl.handle.net/2429/77297.

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