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When Pandemics Arise, Composers Carry On

In the wake of pandemics and large-scale crises, composers have responded in a broad variety of ways over the centuries.
Wellcome Library, London
Wikimedia Commons
In the wake of pandemics and large-scale crises, composers have responded in a broad variety of ways over the centuries.

Some people respond to suffering by turning it into art. That's true even with the harrowing experience of a pandemic.

In the early 1400s, an Englishman named John Cooke composed Stella celi, a hymn to the Virgin Mary referencing the Black Plague which, according to somesources, wiped out half of Europe. Its text speaks of the "ulcers of a terrible death" but also the assurance that "the star of heaven ... has rooted out the plague."

Cooke's hymn is unlikely the first direct musical response to a major pandemic, but it is one of the earliest. Many more composers, over the millennia, have been inspired to write music in times of crisis.

As pandemics resurfaced and new ones cropped up, people centuries ago were, in general, keenly aware of the precarious nature of life. Johann Sebastian Bach was no exception. He was orphaned twice by age 10 and lost half of his 20 children and his first wife.

Bach wrote music that could comfort in times of distress and music that directly confronted plagues in his Cantata No. 25, titled "There is Nothing Healthy in My Body." He wrote it in 1723, just a year after the great plague of Marseille, France ended, leaving over 100,000 people dead. Bach's anonymous text talks of the "world as a hospital" and "children laid low with sickness." A sober but lilting aria in the middle of the cantata declares, "My plague cannot be healed by any herb or ointment, other than the balm of Gilead."

The world faced a more modern kind of plague in the 1980s. HIV/AIDS has claimed more than 32 million lives, according to theWorld Health Organization. Along with all the loss of life comes another parallel between that pandemic and today's crisis. In the 1980s, many blamed the Reagan administration for not confronting the virus quickly and honestly enough, just as similar criticisms continue to be leveled at both the U.S. and Chinese governments.

Artists, in the face of death and adversity, sometimes react with rage. That's surely the case with American composerJohn Corigliano and his Symphony No. 1, sometimes referred to as the "AIDS Symphony."

Written as a heart-on-sleeve elegy for the many friends Corigliano lost to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, the music is by turns tender, anguished and ferocious. The opening movement, titled "Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance," begins with searing strings pummeled by percussion before it finally evaporates into chill air. Another movement, the "Tarantella," gyrates with jagged, and sometimes woozy, rhythms like the fevered hallucinations of an AIDS victim. The symphony was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1990 and it won the covetedGrawemeyer Award the following year.

Today's pandemic has cruelly cut off the livelihood of countless musicians and composers, even tragically taking the lives of some. In response, performances have moved online and from home, donations are being taken, funding sources set up and commissions generated.

Lisa Bielawa, based in New York, is in the midst of writing a choral work in response to the virus. Titled Broadcast from Home, the piece is built on testimonials the composer is collecting via social media from individuals in self-isolation or self-quarantine. A section of the piece, "That Other You Still Exists," takes its text from an anonymous source in Westchester, N.Y. Part of it reads: "After more than a week of being at sixes and sevens, not caring about all the inside things I love to do. Where was music? Where was reading? Why wasn't I cleaning closets?"

A "virtual" orchestra and chorus of about 25 musicians from around the country are recording their own parts at home and sending them to Bielawa to stitch together. An interactive tool the composer plans to set up onher site will help anyone learn and record the music she's written, then submit tracks as part of the chorus. Bielawa says she's uncertain, at this point, whether the premiere of Broadcast from Home will happen virtually online or in public, depending on how soon the virus subsides.

Bielawa, as it turns out, is following in the footsteps of many composers over the centuries. Her response to distress is to tell the stories of regular people. In times of adversity, composers hope to create art that will reach people, will have some kind of soothing balm or cathartic healing, whether the music directly refers to ancient plagues or modern pandemics.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.