It’s still too soon to say if new music will arise from the COVID-19 crisis. But humans have used music throughout history to define their generations and chronicle the monumental happenings of their time.
The following are pieces of classical music that are a culmination of a moment in time that illustrate the resilience of the human spirit, much like the current pandemic, and often provide a beacon of hope for a better tomorrow.
Steve Reich — “WTC 9/11: I. 9/11 ” — Performed by Kronos Quartet
It took Steve Reich nearly a decade to compose something about the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, saying he needed to take a “real long break.”
The three-movement string quartet “WTC 9/11” includes documentary spoken audio of air traffic controllers, first responders, and friends and family of victims, making for a haunting memorial of the attack. The first movement opens with an ominous, repeating sound that could be a phone’s busy signal or an emergency alarm, both of which are tones indicative of the day. Then, the tension quickly builds to recount what happened on that fateful morning. The frightened voices of the air traffic controllers and dissonant, high harmonies of the strings make this a particularly tough listen.
John Corigliano — Symphony No. 1: III. Chaconne - “Giulio’s Song” — Performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
A sobering thought ran through John Corigliano’s head in the early 1980s: “It’s all over. we’re all going to die.” Corigliano had seen his first headline for GRID, or gay-related immune deficiency, the disease that later became known as AIDS. Inspired in part by the AIDS Quilt, his first symphony is a memorial for the many friends and colleagues he lost to AIDS.
The third movement of the symphony is a haunting and powerful elegy called “Giulio’s Song,” dedicated to the composer’s friend of the same name who was an amateur cellist. The slow, dirge-like piece features a cello solo written by Giulio and slowly builds up to a forceful and grisly funeral march evoking the gravity of the pandemic.
Margaret Bonds — “Dream Variations” — Performed by Lara Downes and Rhiannon Giddons
“I was in this prejudiced university, this terribly prejudiced place…,” said Margaret Bonds, reflecting on her first year at Northwestern University in Chicago in 1929.
It was at Northwestern, however, that she would discover the poetry of Langston Hughes, which she said “helped my feelings of security.” Hughes was one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, a precursor to the Civil Rights movement. Bonds would go on to set much of his poetry to music, and the two would eventually meet and become very good friends.
“Three Dream Portraits” are some of Bonds’ most popular songs. The second, “Dream Variations,” is an atmospheric ballad with a hopeful message that better days lay ahead. The imagery painted by the music to reflect Hughes’ poetry is stunning: “While night comes on gently, Dark like me. That is my dream!”
Hans Krása — “Tanec (Dance)” — Performed by Black Oak Ensemble
Hans Krása was already a fairly well-established composer when he was sent to the infamous ghetto-concentration camp in the Czech city of Terezín in 1942. What was once a promising career was cut short by his imprisonment at Terezín, and eventual untimely death in Auschwitz.
Krása continued to write music in Terezín. A couple of those tracks are featured on a recent album from the Black Oak Ensemble called “Silenced Voices,” which was featured last month on New Classical Tracks. The “Tanec” is a macabre, frenetic dance in which the main motif of the piece is reminiscent of the trains used to forcibly transport Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Ruth Crawford Seeger — “Rissolty, Rossolty” — Performed by Oliver Knussen and the Schonberg Ensemble
The Great Depression had a profound impact on the music industry in the 1930s and 1940s. The majority of musicians were out of work, teachers were losing students, and live performances were being replaced with recording technology like the radio and the phonograph. What live performances there were favored the traditional repertoire over innovative compositions.
Composers like Ruth Crawford Seeger were forced to “meet the moment.” Seeger, a modernist herself, would become a leading figure in the American Folk Movement. Her “Rissolty, Rossolty” is a benchmark work from that movement. The short work is an uptempo romp in which three folk themes are introduced and ultimately weaved together expertly. “Rissolty” is a Copland-esque composition and is evocative of what would become the quintessential Americana style of the time.
Ralph Vaughan Williams — “Dona Nobis Pacem: VI. O Man Greatly Beloved” — Performed by Stephen Cleobury, Britten Sinfonia, and Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Vaughan Williams was 42 years old when he enlisted to serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War I, driving ambulances transporting wounded British soldiers and allies from the front lines. Needless to say, he never saw the world in quite the same way again.
In “Dona Nobis Pacem (Grant Us Peace),” Vaughan Williams makes this plea using Biblical texts, sections of the Mass, and the poetry of Walt Whitman. The message is solemn, emotional, and ultimately hopeful. The final movement begins with the biblical quote, “O Man Greatly Beloved, fear not, peace be unto thee, be strong, yea, be strong.” The chorus returns triumphantly and the work culminates with the final somber cies for peace from the soprano soloist: “Dona nobis pacem.”
Ethyl Smith — “The March of the Women” — Performed by Eiddwen Harrhy and the Chorus of the Plymouth Music Series
English composer Ethyl Smith was heavily involved with the Women’s Suffrage Movement of the early 20th century. In fact, she even gave up music for two years to devote herself to the cause by joining the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1910.
1910 was also the year she would write the piece that became the official anthem of the group: “The March of the Women: Shout, Shout! Up With Your Song!” It’s a rousing march described by the WSPU as “at once a hymn and a call to battle.” I’ll leave it at that!
David Lang — “Protect Yourself from Infection” — Performed by The Crossing
“Protect Yourself From Infection” was commissioned by the Mütter Museum College of Physicians of Philadelphia for their “Spit Spreads Death” exhibit documenting the devastating effect of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918, or the Spanish Flu, on Philadelphia. Composer David Lang said in a recent tweet: “I had no idea when I wrote this last year that we’d be living it this year.”
Chant-like and entrancing, the words are taken from a 1918 U.S. government directive on how to handle yourself during the pandemic. The sung instructions are interspersed with soloists taking turns reading the names of those Philadelphians who lost their lives to the disease.
We’re all living through an uncertain and difficult time. But hopefully, monumental works of art that display the robust human spirit will rise out of this.
“Any adversity makes artists move closer to what is important, essential,” Composer Arvo Pärt told the Spanish newspaper ABC last month. “Only time can show what fruits will such a focusing on the essential bear...This is a very long process”
As we continue through this long process, I want to leave you with a little gift from Pärt himself with the beautifully introspective “Spiegel im Spiegel.” In this piece, the placid and steady piano acts as the the “guardian angel” to the reflective melody in the violin, as characterized by Pärt. And in these anxious times, a guardian angel may just be what we need.
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