Music has always played a pivotal role at times of social change. On Saturday 9 May –  the weekend after polling day for the General Election of 2015 – we premiere 16 songs by composers considering the society they hope to see. Their chosen subjects range from the NHS and sex trafficking to homelessness and education.

We’ve looked back at the stories behind some influential pieces of music which shaped the society of their time.

  1. Sir Hubert Parry/William Blake Jerusalem (1916/1804)

Originally called And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times, Jerusalem was renamed around the time it was performed at the Suffrage Demonstration Concert in early 1918. After the concert, suffragette Millicent Garrett Fawcett asked Sir Hubert Parry’s permission to use Jerusalem as the Women Voters’ Hymn. Permission granted, it became the anthem for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Later that same year the Representation of the People Act was passed in parliament.

  1. Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony No. 9 (1824)

Ludwig van Beethoven’s popular ninth symphony has been the soundtrack for a variety of pivotal transitions throughout history. It all began with the world premiere in Vienna, when police were drafted in to prevent standing ovations for a composer whose popularity threatened to rile the Austrian emperor. At the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein performed the work as the renamed Ode to Freedom, before it became the official anthem for the European Union. Later, Symphony No. 9 also became Kosovo’s national anthem in recognition of the European Union’s role in the creation of that state.

  1. Dmitri Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 (1942)

Dan Cruickshank, art historian, honorary fellow of the Royal Institution of British Artists, author and TV/radio broadcaster describes the symphony’s impact: “The Leningrad premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7 was given in 1942 – and perhaps never before in history had music been used as such a direct weapon of war. The city had been under siege by Nazi Germany for nearly a year but continued to resist. Its people needed their morale and spirits lifted, and the work was intended to do that. It was also to proclaim the spirit of resolve and resistance to the Germans. The Leningrad premier was to be an act of defiance and of war, but it was also to be symbolic. 9 August – the day chosen for the performance – was also the date Hitler has chosen to celebrate the expected fall of Leningrad. Loudspeakers broadcast the performance to the whole city and to the encircling German army, with the premiere preceded by a bombardment of the German positions and a military sortie. The city endured – no doubt partly thanks to this symphony – until relieved in January 1944.”

  1. Bob Dylan The Times They Are a-Changin (1964)

Reflecting both the folk protest movement of the 1960s and also the civil rights movement in the US, Bob Dylan wrote The Times They Are-a-Changin as a deliberate attempt to capture this time of transitions. He wrote: “I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, with short, concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. This is definitely a song with a purpose. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to.”

  1. Nina Simone Mississippi Goddam (1964)

Mississippi Goddam was written by Nina Simone as a response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, as well as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four black children in Birmingham, Alabama. The song became a civil rights activist anthem representing the fight for equality and an end to racism. She performed it to 40,000 people during the Selma to Montgomery marches when she and other activists, including Sammy Davis Jr., James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte, crossed police lines.

  1. Stevie Wonder Happy Birthday (1981)

After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, a campaign began to get the civil rights leader’s birthday declared a national public holiday. After a defeat of the bill in congress, Stevie Wonder was asked by the King Centre for his help. Wonder wrote Happy Birthday to bring the cause into public consciousness and hosted the Rally for Peace Press Conference to inspire people to sign the petition for a public holiday. Six million signatures were thus obtained, making it the largest petition for a single issue in the country’s history. In 1983 Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law.

  1. U2 Sunday Bloody Sunday (1983)

Sunday Bloody Sunday captured the raw emotion of many people in Ireland and the UK growing up in the early 1980s. With the Falkland War still recent, in 1984, a year after the song was released, the IRA bombing in Brighton stunned society and its Tory leadership. With lyrics such as ‘How long – must we sing this song’, subsequent performances of U2’s song captured its audience’s feelings about the futility of war and violence.

  1. Band Aid Do They Know It’s Christmas? (1984)

Band Aid was a supergroup founded by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise money towards ending poverty in Ethiopia. Their song had worldwide success in 1984 and resulted in similar acts of support from countries such as Canada, France, Spain and the United States. Its impact also directly inspired the development of huge charity concerts such as Live Aid. In total, Band Aid and Live Aid raised over £100 million for the famine relief effort in Ethiopia. In 2014 the United Nations asked Geldof to reform the group and release a remake of Do They Know It’s Christmas, raising funds to fight Ebola.

Do you agree with our choices? Would you have picked any other pieces of music? Let us know in the comments below.


This latest (Un)easy Listening post looks at the music of John Woolrich, one of 16 composers we’ve commissioned to write songs for our Notes to the New Government concert. Philip Cashian, fellow composer and Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, reveals some of Woolrich’s techniques and musical influences. Join us on Saturday 9 May to hear the world premiere of his song Singing in the Lifeboat.

The history of John Woolrich’s songs

Of the 16 composers writing new songs for this concert, John Woolrich stands out to me as being one to particularly listen out for. Vocal writing – whether for children in the classroom, opera, choir, solo voice and orchestra, or making instrumental transcriptions – is central to John’s creative output over the past 30 years.

In the late 1980s he and Mary Wiegold started work on the Mary Wiegold Songbook, commissioning fellow composers to write songs for soprano, two clarinets, viola, cello and bass. At last count there were nearly 200 songs in the collection ranging from Elvis Costello’s The Trouble with Dreams to Salvatore Sciarrino’s Due Risvegli e il Vento.

Written for Mary Wiegold’s songbook in 1988 and barely 90 seconds long, John’s song The Turkish Mouse bears many of the fingerprints of his music: a strong and memorable melodic line repeated with decorations, a ticking (double bass) pulse, soprano saxophone, wit, clarity of intent and a clever use of repetition to establish musical ideas:

John is also one of the 100 or so composers who contributed to the NMC Songbook released in 2009 to mark the 20th anniversary of NMC:

And he wrote a song last year for Aldeburgh Music’s Friday Afternoon project.

His brand new song for the London Sinfonietta, Singing in the Lifeboat, is scored for voice and nine instruments. The instrumentation is typical; the percussionist plays five tin cans and the clarinet is replaced by soprano saxophone. In a song with a message, the words need to be heard and the vocal line has been carefully written so that all the words come across and are never buried in the accompaniment that frames them. John’s choice of texts is always brilliantly considered and appropriate and this song is no exception in it’s setting of fragments of Voltaire:

Don’t think money does everything or you’ll do everything for money.
The comfort of the rich depends on the abundance of the poor.
to get to the top it’s not enough to be stupid, you must also be polite.

John Woolrich’s influences

Hanns Eisler is a model for John with his accessible but subtly abstract style. Here is one of John’s favourite Eisler songs:

Tom Waits is another song writer greatly admired by John (and by Colin Matthews, another of the 16 composers creating songs for Notes to the New Government). To my ear, the influence of Waits can be heard in John’s approach to orchestration – listen out for 08:28-10:46 in John’s piece The Ghost in the Machine:


Shabaka Hutchings

Composer and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings takes on some quickfire questions in the lead up to our Notes to the New Government concert on Saturday 9 May. The song Shabaka has written for the night focuses on political apathy and will be played in the second set at 8pm.

What do you regard as your greatest artistic achievement?

The newly finished second Sons of Kemet album (my band).

What do you fear?


Which piece of music has had the biggest effect on you as a composer?

Thomas Mapfumo’s Shumba.

What’s the most unusual performance you’ve been a part of?

Dean Blunt’s ‘free jazz’ gig in total darkness at Cafe OTO.

What’s currently on your coffee table at home?

What home??? I’m between homes at the moment (but I always travel with a copy of The Chronic published by Chimurenga and Guy Lacour’s Etudes on Messaien Modes).

What was the first recording you ever bought?

D’angelo’s Brown Sugar.

Describe your compositional style in three words.

Intuitive, intuitive, intuitive.

If you could have any other profession, what would it be?

Alexander technique teacher.

Who has been the biggest influence in your life?

My Mother.

Tell us your best musical joke.

Q – How do you know a singer’s at the door?

A – They’ve forgotten the key and don’t know where to come in.


This season, three photojournalism students from London College of Communication – Aylin Elci, Clelia Carbonari and Tamara Craiu – have been working with us to document the life of the London Sinfonietta backstage.

On Sunday 15 March they joined us at rehearsals for Steve Beresford’s new piece Green Slipper, a work which responds to Christian Marlcay’s video installation Pub Crawl. We performed the premiere at White Cube, as part of Marclay’s solo exhibition there. Take a look at their work below:


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Ahead of our Spectrum of Sound concert this coming Saturday 28 March, we asked clarinetist Scott Lygate – one of our London Sinfonietta Emerging Artists – for a playlist of the music he’s currently listening to.

Spectrum of Sound charts the extraordinary advances in sonic manipulation over recent years, through music by iconic composers such as Scelsi, Ligeti, Murail and Haas. A pre-concert talk will explore the use of texture, timbre, microtones and overtones as compositional techniques, whilst a late night lounge expands the sonic journey into the electronic. To find out more, click here.

Luciano Berio Sequenza IXc for bass clarinet

Giacinto Scelsi Maknongan

Magnus Lindberg Clarinet Quintet

Michael Jarrell Assonance II

Iannis Xenakis Kottos

Helmut Lachenmann Mouvement

Richard Barrett Earth


Composer Soosan Lolavar takes on some quickfire questions in the lead up to our Spectrum of Sound concert on Saturday 28 March. Soosan’s new work Protect me from what I want features in the evening’s late night lounge, at 9.30pm in the foyer.

She shares her highs, her lows and her best musical joke:

What do you regard as your greatest artistic achievement?

Every single time I manage to write a piece of music. When I’m in the middle of the creative process I feel so lost and confused that I’m constantly amazed when things come together at the end and I am still a vaguely sane human being.

What do you fear?

Disaster, obsolescence, realising it was all a waste of time, losing someone I love.

Which piece of music has had the biggest effect on you as a composer?

Atmsophères for orchestra by György Ligeti. It completely blew my mind when I first heard it and opened me up to a whole world of sound I never knew existed.

What’s the most unusual performance you’ve been a part of?

An experimental installation work called Aftermath when I was at Oxford University. It lasted for around 20 minutes and involved, among other things, someone throwing a beach ball continuously at their friend’s head, two people walking in every couple of minutes and spraying scent on the audience, a man playing banjo from inside a large box and me switching a desk lamp on and off at very specific intervals.

What’s currently on your coffee table at home?

A book on Bauhaus that I bought ages ago and still haven’t got round to reading.

What was the first recording you ever bought?

Stay by Eternal a true classic. Following that it was Country House by Blur I still know all the words.

Describe your compositional style in three words.

Textural, restrained, meditative.

If you could have any other profession, what would it be?

I’d love to be an architect but I don’t have any of the requisite skills.

Who has been the biggest influence in your life?

All of my composition teachers, each of whom have changed my life in ways they can’t imagine, but especially Cecilia McDowell, Oliver Leaman, Dominic Murcott and Stephen Montague.

Tell us your best musical joke.

This Aaron Copland quote always makes me laugh:

“Listening to the Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams is like staring at a cow for 45 minutes.”


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