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Music and Justice: variations on a given theme

Presentation of the theme
Joann Élart et Sophie Victorien
Cet article est une traduction de :
Musique et justice : variations sur un thème donné [fr]

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Translated by Patricia Bass

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1This “Music and Justice” dossier provides articles organized around four key themes: musical representations of justice, crime and punishment; descriptions of suspects and criminals in music; musicians dealing with the judicial system, and the history of music in prison. These articles contain historical and aesthetic analyses of little-known works which all share the themes of crime and justice. Because of their subject matter, these articles are, by nature, interdisciplinary and much of the work addressed goes with certain musical compositions. Other contributions in this dossier address confrontations of musicians with the law and the possible effects of these experiences on musical production. First published in 2013, this dossier remains open to new article submissions.

Musical representations of justice, crime, and punishment

2In music for the masses and in music for the elites, justice, crime and punishment are important themes for librettists, songwriters, composers, and singers. The protagonists of theatrical works such as operas, comic operas, vaudeville and musicals, encounter challenges, providing the tempo for the play between tension and resolution. Whether the subject of a (musical) work is murder, condemnation, trials, life in prison, the righteousness of justice, or its exploitation, there is no lack of material to represent the contradictory emotions that lie in the hearts of the criminal, the guilty, the innocent, the accused, and the accusers. Among these numerous representations, that of the prison reoccurs on a regular basis – in representations of spaces of imprisonment, time seems to be suspended, and isolation facilitates introspection and the search for a happy ending. Consequently, the “prison cell scene” is a topic that can be analyzed as it evolves over time.

Musical representations of criminals and of the accused

3Often, the subjects of musical works draw from real events and the important cases that were the talk of the town. The distribution of laments about criminals that started at the end of the Ancien Régime underlines the timeless search for true justice, or at least for exemplary punishment. The general population incessantly looked for ways to express their sympathy for victims, their rage against the offender, and their desire for a certain “justice for all”. In response, poets invented the “criminal lament” (a song describing a particularly noteworthy crime), which were sold and distributed in unique ways. Protest songs, a similar genre, combined poetic and personal commentary with current events and facts from the courtroom. Theatrical adaptations also allowed current events to be portrayed in new ways, such as the 1821 Zoyzeck case, which Büchner adapted as a play in 1837 and Berg transformed into an opera in 1925.

Musicians in the court of law

4Playwrights, theater composers, songwriters, singers, and musicians in general (although singers, above all) are often implicated in court cases, whether they be criminal, political or civil. Whether it pertains to song content that could be “harmful to society” or subversive to the powers that be, whether the artists actually did flirt with delinquency or whether they were the targets of the authorities, many had run-ins with the judicial system and the law. To address this issue, our dossier provides a presentation of several artists who were confronted with prosecution, censorship, and imprisonment. From the singer Garat who sang during the Reign of Terror, to the singer Béranger, who performed during the Bourbon Restoration, to the rock and roll musicians from the 1960s, the personal experiences of musicians facing prosecution informed their artistic production and their careers.

A history of music in prison

5Finally, several articles on the role of music in prisons conclude this dossier. Drawing primarily on first-hand accounts, the authors that address this final theme aim to present the diverse and unique ways in which actors and cultural establishments bring music to the prison system through initiatives of music appreciation, or the development of musical practices like composition.

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Référence électronique

Joann Élart et Sophie Victorien, « Music and Justice: variations on a given theme »Criminocorpus [En ligne], Musique et Justice, mis en ligne le 26 novembre 2013, consulté le 05 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Joann Élart

Joann Élart est maître de conférences en musicologie (GRHis, Université de Rouen).

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Sophie Victorien

Docteure en histoire contemporaine, chargée de recherche (GRHis, Université de Rouen). Sophie Victorien est chargée d’édition (articles et ressources en ligne) de Criminocorpus.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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