Classical musicians often explicitly respond to current events, trends, or ideas in the world around them as inspiration for their works. Here are a few examples, in chronological order:

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Wellington’s Victory (1813)

Beethoven wrote this piece, often considered an empty, cheap work (a “potboiler”) by music critics, as a money-maker. Inspired by the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Joseph Bonaparte in 1813, it features musket fire, an enormous orchestra, and patriotic/military song melodies from the countries involved in the battle (England, France). It is rarely played today.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93), 1812 Overture (1880)

This is one of the Tchaikovsky’s most popular works. It was inspired by the Russian army’s successful defense against Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempted invasion in 1812, and features real canons that fire at the climax of the piece.

John Corigliano (b. 1938), Symphony No. 1 (1989)

Corigliano was inspired to write this work because of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Although he previously didn’t want to compose a symphony, he felt the need to do so in order to commemorate “‘my friends – those I had lost and the one I was losing.” Each movement is dedicated to a close friend/musician who had died.

Frank Ticheli (b. 1958), Radiant Voices (1992)

This is Ticheli’s artistic response to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which he wrote because he “felt the need to compose a dramatic fantasy, powerful in expression, bright and optimistic in nature–a sounding of ‘radiant voices’ amid the turmoil.”

Laura Kaminsky (b. 1956), Vukovar Trio (1999)

The Croatian town of Vukovar had been decimated during the Yugoslavian Civil War in 1991. In 1999, American composer Laura Kaminsky visited Vukovar on a peacekeeping mission, unprepared for the level of destruction she saw 8 years after the war, and the devastation weighed on her so heavily that the next time she sat at a piano, the beginnings of this piece emerged. She dedicated her Vukovar Trio to the victims of ethnic cleansing. It’s a piece of chamber music (violin, cello, piano) performed in one movement of connected but contrasting sections, each of which has a vivid subtitle in the score: A Sky Torn Asunder; The Shattering of Glass; Lost Souls; Revenge/Retreat; Death Chorale; River of Blood and Ice; Ghost Chorale; Dance of Devastation

Jennifer Jolley (b. 1981), Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens (2012)

Jolley composed this “nano-opera” depicting the southern celebrity chef Paula Deen. In the plot, Deen is making her infamous “The Lady’s Brunch Burger” (glazed doughnuts, hamburger, fried egg, bacon, and cheese) when she accidentally chokes on a doughnut and dies. In the afterlife, Deen is denied entrance to heaven because of her sinful culinary ways. She pleads to the angels guarding heaven’s door to let her in, tempting them to taste butter, causing them to lose their angel wings.

Laura Kaminsky, As One (2014)

This opera tells the story of a person, Hannah, transitioning genders.

Anthony Davis (b. 1951), Five (2019)

This opera tells the true story of a group of Black and Latino NYC teenagers wrongfully accused, tried, and imprisoned for 13 years for the attack on a white female jogger in Central Park in 1989.