Play On: Songs of Revelry

Welcome to “Play On”, a monthly column that explores connections between literature and music by presenting themed playlists at the beginning of each month. Music recommendations are made by members of the Review’s editing team and curated by our Chief Editor, Con Xie.

Music is essential to every celebration. Through phrases and modulations, it establishes the atmosphere of a gathering; through rhythm, it shapes the perception of time and the tempo of movements. In this month’s list, we sought to capture celebratory music ranging from the foreboding to the hopeful, bringing the listener with us through many eras and cultures.


— Con

Le Veau D’Or

From: “Faust”

Composer: Charles Gounod

In arriving at a scene of drinking and dancing, Mephistopheles introduces himself by singing a bold song of human greed and sin, citing the story of the golden calf from the Bible in which mankind disobeyed God and worshipped a calf forged from gold to their own ends instead. The aria is at once foreboding and rapturous, creating a terrifying but characteristically attractive image of Mephistopheles’s character. It concludes with the revelation that the hullabaloo surrounding the golden calf was instigated by Satan himself. 

CHanson Boheme

From: “Carmen”

Composer: Georges Bizet

Sung by the titular character of Bizet’s Carmen, an opera based on the Merimee novella of the same name, Chanson Boheme (“Gypsy Song”) rouses the crowd in a tavern to revelry just before it is suddenly shut down. The minor key combined with the carefree rhythm create an aura of wild merrymaking. Though composed for the Opera-Comique of Paris, Carmen deviates from the tradition of the opera buffa, or comical operas, typically performed for middle-class audiences at the theatre in that it is tragic and involves a greater extent of social realism than was typical at the time. The lively components of Carmen, such as Chanson Boheme, served as counterparts to the darker narrative of the opera’s plot, which was mostly retained from the novel. Carmen later served to pave the way for the development of a movement in operatic history grounded in realism, known as verismo.

Molto Vivace

From: Symphony No. 1 (“Classical”) Op. 25

Composer: Sergei Prokofiev

The final movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 (“Classical”), composed twenty-nine years after his opera War and Peace, attempts to capture true Russian joy that Leo Tolstoy sought to capture through the dance scenes of the aforementioned novel. This is evident especially considering Natasha Rostova’s innate ‘Russianness’ as she mesmerizes the attendees/spectators with her jubilant dancing at a ball, and later her ability to happily perform a Russian folk dance despite her lack of prior instruction. Just as Tolstoy makes it clear that Natasha is the embodiment of Russian revelry whenever she dances, Prokofiev portrays it through this movement,“Molto Vivace” — “Very Lively.”


From: Symphony No. 1 (“Afro-American”)

Composer: William Grant Still Jr.

The score for William Grant Still Jr.’s “Afro-American Symphony” features quotes from several of Paul Laurence Bunbar’s dialect poems, such as “Twell de Night Is Pas,’” “W’en I Gits Home,” and “Ode to Ethiopia,” which served as inspiration for each movement of the piece. For his third movement, “Humor,” Still drew from Dunbar’s “An Ante-Bellum Sermon,” which speaks to the emancipation and citizenship of Black Americans. The lines quoted in this movement’s epigraph are as follows: “An’ we’ll shout ouah halleluyahs/On dat mighty reck’nin’ day.”


From: Vasos Vacios

Composers/Songwriters: Los Fabulosos Cadillacs

This song’s score evokes the colorful celebrations of the Argentine people, while the lyrics explore the oppression and disappearances prevalent during the National Reorganization Process’s dictatorship in Argentina, creating a harrowing juxtaposition featured in Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases.

Come and Get your love

From: Wovoka

Composers/Songwriters: Redbone

Inspired by Native Pop Art and Indigenous Futurism art forms, this 2020 music video shows a Native American travelling through political, social, and cultural events. Its references to pop culture bear strong similarities to those cited in Sherman Alexie’s essay “Superman and Me,” in which he narrates his journey as a Spokane Indian boy learning to read through a Superman comic book.

London is the place for me

From: Trinidadian Calypso in London

Composer/Songwriter: Aldwyn Roberts

This calypso song captures the emotions of West Indian and West African expatriates in London after World War II, especially their optimism and hope for a better future in the capital of the metropole, London. These same inner colors are expressed keenly in the Trinidadian author Sam Selvon’s novel, The Lonely Londoners.