Songs of Protest

Leonore Overture No. 3, Opus 72a
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven wrote four overtures to his only complete opera Fidelio, or Leonore as it was titled for the first performance on November 20, 1805. The overture used was the so-called second Leonore. After three performances, this first version of the opera was withdrawn.

The next year, Beethoven was persuaded by friends to revise the score for a revival on March 29. For this second version of the opera, he wrote the third Leonore Overture. The so-called first Leonore Overture was written either as a working draft for the second or as the introduction to a planned performance in Prague that never happened. Alan Tyson, for one, believes it was composed after the second and third Leonore Overtures. For the 1814 revival of the opera, Beethoven still created a fourth overture, what we now call the Fidelio Overture.

The Third Leonore Overture was called “abominable cacophony” at the time of its first performance. Subsequent listeners would find the Overture almost too good for the opera. “Far from giving us a mere musical introduction to the drama,” wrote Richard Wagner, “it sets that drama more completely and more lovingly before us than ever happens in the stage action which ensues. This work is no longer an overture, but the mightiest of dramas in itself.”

~Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2023.

Second Essay for Orchestra, Opus 17
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

Barber wrote three “essays” for orchestra. In them, he said he “borrowed a literary form for music to suggest an architectonic structure in which a thought is projected at the opening and then permitted to develop to a logical conclusion in the same way that a central thought unfolds in an essay.”

Commissioned by Bruno Walter for the centennial of the New York Philharmonic, the Second Essay was introduced at Carnegie Hall in New York on April 16, 1942. Howard Taubman wrote in the New York Times: “His work, in a short space, creates and sustains a mood. Its thematic material is unashamedly lyrical, but also dignified. It is worked out for the orchestra with the economy of knowledge and assurance. Perhaps the composition is a shade too solemn, but a composer is entitled to his own thesis. Mr. Walter and the orchestra gave the essay a spacious. sonorous performance. Whether it was just what the composer wanted it is impossible to say. But Mr. Barber was there to take a bow and to thank Mr. Walter and the men.”

The Essay begins with an expansive melody first played by the solo flute, then by other instruments and finally by the strings. After a second theme from the violas and solo oboe comes a frenetic fugue, introduced by the solo clarinet. This leads to a big climax in the brass and a concluding hymn-like section.

~Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2023.

Bodies on the Line: The Great Flint Sit-Down Strike
Martin Rokeach, Composer
Rebecca Engle, Librettist and Dramaturge
(world premiere, Oakland Symphony commission with support from the Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music and Saint Mary’s College of California (Frank J. Filippi Professorship in Performing Arts; Provost’s Research Grant; Faculty Development Fund; Office of Faculty Development Writers’ Retreat)

On Dec. 30, 1936 two thousand auto workers in Flint, Michigan rose up against General Motors,
the largest corporation in the world. They’d been driven to drastic action by crushing working
conditions; the heat, danger, long hours, and unrelenting pace broke down bodies and
shattered nerves. Their strain was amplified by fluctuating employment and grinding wage
uncertainty, shop-floor bullies and GM spies. They occupied the plants for forty-four days in
what became known as the “Great Flint Sit-Down Strike.”

Facing the constant threat of violent expulsion, the strikers hunkered down. On Jan. 11 GM
escalated, attacking with tear gas and guns. The story made international headlines. Then on
Feb. 1st, 1937, in a brilliant tactical move, strike leaders fed disinformation to known spies,
creating a diversion that allowed sit-downers to take over two more plants in the GM complex.
With pivotal links in GM’s production chain now disrupted, the balance of power shifted
decisively. A negotiated settlement quickly followed. The Flint victory marked the dawn of a
new era, one in which the needs and rights of ordinary workers could not easily be swept aside
in the name of profit. In the wake of the strike, America’s blue collar middle class was born.
Legitimized by the Flint victory, the non-violent disruption of business-as-usual was soon
deployed by other labor activists, as a wave of sit-down strikes swept the country. The strategy
continued to evolve across the 20th century: into Civil Rights-era lunch-counter sit-ins, then
Vietnam demonstrations, environmental protests, Occupy Wall Street, and more. The issues
that drove the Flint strike have also evolved, but have never been resolved. 21st century
workers still struggle for a living wage, for humane working conditions, for union protections –
whether their employer is a fast-food franchise, a global corporation, the nation’s railroads, or a
third-world factory making goods for first-world consumers.

But in the story of the Flint Strike we also find inspiration and timely reminders: of the humanity
and dignity of workers; of women’s resourcefulness and courage; of the potency of collective
action by ordinary individuals. Some of the strike’s battles were fought with bodies and
weapons, but many more were fought with words – as all sides jockeyed for public support,
political advantage or financial gain. For this reason, our libretto was shaped largely from the
actual speech and writings of the strike’s key players, captured in the sit-downer’s letters,
diaries and telegrams; audio archives of the sit-downers’ recollections; published interviews and
memoirs; and in GM’s own press statements and policy memos.

Maestro Michael Morgan wholeheartedly supported the creation of this oratorio, and it is
with deep gratitude that we dedicate this work to him.

~ Bodies on the Line Notes by Martin Rokeach, composer, and Rebecca Engle, librettist and dramaturge, copyright 2023

Flint and the GM plants: a snapshot
Flint, Michigan in the Depression years was a company town: housing, business, law enforcement, and the courts were all in GM’s pocket. Immigrants and single young men, often recruited from the impoverished rural south, kept GM supplied with workers. The workforce was mostly white and male, and only 22% were classified as skilled.

The work itself was relentless, brutal, and dangerous. Lye and lime dust settled onto skin and paint fumes filled the lungs. Many jobs required both speed and strength: lifting 300 hundred 50 pound flywheels every 30 minutes, or driving rails into 40-50 car bodies per hour. But the worst and dirtiest jobs in all the GM plants were in the foundry, shoveling coal into coke ovens and forges. Most of GM’s 4,000 African-American workers were assigned these “unskilled” foundry jobs.

Great Flint Sit Down Strike: Timeline of Key Events (with corresponding oratorio movements)

Part One


1933: ​Wage cuts below the cost of living and vicious working conditions brought a succession of revolts among the autoworkers in 1933. Strikes in seven plants took place in January, and through the year walkouts closed or crippled 33 plants in eight cities – Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Cleveland, Oakland, Edgewater NJ, Philadelphia and Chester PA.

1934: ​ AFL has lined up more than 210,000 auto workers in loosely organized locals. A general strike is averted by the newly elected FDR; instead, a section of the new NRA code allows for “proportional representation” among competing labor groups: AFL unions, independent unions, and company unions. Transferred from federal unions into craft locals​, workers soon discover that this kind of unionism has no value for them. Thousands of disillusioned members drop out of the Federation.

Nov 18: Strike is in the air. ​Atlanta GM plant goes out strike. Cause: the usual one, men fired for wearing union buttons. Next, in Cleveland the key Fisher Body plant sits down. Union leaders, frustrated by GM’s tactic of deferring all complaints to local managers, submit a tentative contract to the manager of Fisher Body works, requesting an answer in seven days.

Dec. 30: Overnight, three inspectors in Fisher No. 2 [in Flint] are transferred to undesirable posts because they refused to quit the union. In protests, 125 men in Fisher No. 2 sit down. A few hours later, GM moves dies from the Flint Fisher Body No. 1 to its plants in Grand Rapids and Pontiac. Its workers respond by sitting down. The Great Flint Sit-down strike has begun.

Part Two:
LETTERS HOME I: Sitting’ Tight, Feelin’ Fine
Jan. 3: GM claps an injunction on the sit-down strikers, but it is later voided when the judge is found to own a large block of GM stock. Formation of the Flint Alliance: ​Foremen, supervisors and company union representatives circulate “back to work” petitions and Flint Alliance cards in the plants.

LETTERS HOME II: “They Shut Off the Heat”
Jan. 11th: Heat in Fisher Body #2 is turned off without warning. Company and city police try to oust the sit-downers from Fisher No. 2. 14 strikers are wounded by bullets, and scores more felled by tear gas bombs. A second attempt is made at midnight, but the police are held off by water hoses and a barrage of door hinges. The strikers picket all night behind a barricade of motorcars. The injured are treated in hospitals and then arrested. County prosecutor issues 1200 John Doe warrants so that strike sympathizers could be targeted. Governor Murphy sends in National Guard troops to protect the sit-downers from further violence.

Peace efforts begin:​ Governor Murphy persuades GM to confer with the union. The union agrees to evacuate the plants as a condition of the talks. Alfred P. Sloan and Knudsen meet with John L. Lewis and other union officials for exactly twelve minutes. Meanwhile, the Flint Alliance requests General Motors to recognize it and confer with it also; General Motors consents. The strike negotiations ended over this betrayal, and Fisher No. 1 and No 2 still sit.

Now the strike “leaps out of the frame of unionism”​ and becomes a contest between “economic royalists” like the DuPonts, Morgans, and Sloans, and a President and Governor both favorable to organized labor.

Jan 25: Escalating violence ​- a mob attacks a Union meeting at Anderson, Indiana and beats up organizers.
Jan. 26th: ​GM President Alfred P. Sloan refuses Secretary of Labor Perkins’ invitation to meet with union representatives in Washington to discuss settlement.
Jan. 27th:​ A mob assaults four union workers in a Bay City hotel, and later that night sideswipes the workers’ car with professional expertise, sending four men to the hospital.
Jan. 28th:​ Union workers are mobbed at the train in Anderson. “Strike leaders feel the growing pressure of the forces working against them

Feb. 1​: ​ Union organizers plan and pull off a brilliant piece of strategy: they “leak” at a meeting where stool pigeons were known to be present that a strike will begin in Chevrolet 9, and carefully guard the secret that their real objective is Chevrolet 4. Company police and city detectives pour into Plant No. 9, as outside, picketers help draw attention to Plant No. 9. Meanwhile, 500 union members shut down the startled workers in Plant No. 4. When the police redirect their attack to the Plant 4, which has now been occupied, access is blocked by a long line of Women’s Brigade members, standing with locked arms and singing a protest march.

Governor Murphy communicates with President Roosevelt; ​the President himself exerts pressure. Within twenty-fours Alfred Sloan and a GM representative begin negotiations with John L. Lewis and the auto unions. Governor Murphy serves as go-between.

Feb. 3rd: ​Judge Gadola issues an injunction making the union liable for $15,000,000 in fines if they do not vacate the plants. When the strikers ignore the order, Gadola orders the sheriff to arrest them for trespassing. The Sheriff claims he hasn’t the manpower, and asks the Governor to order the National guard to help evacuate the plants. The strikers send telegrams to Governor Murphy, protesting that they are unarmed. Zero hour for the eviction coincides with Women’s Day. ​Five hundred members of the Women’s Emergency Brigade came to march in Flint.

Meanwhile, vigilante troupes are set up by city authorities to preserve “law and order.” ​The Flint Alliance threatens to “shoot the streets clear” if the demonstrations are repeated; to “shoot out the plants; to “shoot the workers down like dogs.”

F​eb 12​: After a tense week, General Motors finally settles with the union.