One March evening last year, a ruckus of tear gas bombs, angry megaphones, and a frenzied crowd was accompanied by operatic melodies at Madrid’s Plaza de Colón. Hundreds of musicians had gathered around a grubby water feature to serenade more than 36,000 protesters who had marched on the capital from all over Spain to express discontent with the conservative administration’s severe austerity measures.
The melee peaked as singers bellowed out the chorus from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco”—an opera written in 1841 that has become a revolutionary anthem in its own right.
“I didn’t know what to do,” recalls Sonia Megías, a Madrid-based composer who conducted the ensemble. “I was cutting [the music] and asking the choir and orchestra, ‘Shall we run away, or continue, or what?’” as riot police clashed with demonstrators just meters behind her. Instead of fleeing for cover, the makeshift orchestra brandished violins, cellos, flutes, and sheet music high in the air, chanting, “These are our weapons!”
Although the term “protest music” conjures images of Baez, Dylan, Marley, Molotov, and many more, its roots lie in the classical traditions represented by La Solfónica, a rabble-rousing group that plays at demonstrations across Madrid.