When Pandemics Arise, Composers Carry On

Apr 13, 2020
Originally published on April 13, 2020 12:12 pm

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 some sources, 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.

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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."

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The world faced a more modern kind of plague in the 1980s. HIV/AIDS has claimed more than 32 million lives, according to the World 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 composer John 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 coveted Grawemeyer Award the following year.

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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 on her 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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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some people respond to suffering by turning it into art. That's true even of the harrowing experience of a pandemic. In the 1400s, a man named John Cooke found a text describing the Black Plague in Europe. And he set those words to music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STELLA CELI")

HILLIARD ENSEMBLE: (Singing in non-English language).

INSKEEP: Wow. This is one of many references to pandemics which we can find throughout music history. And our guide to some of that music this morning is NPR Music's Tom Huizenga. Hey there, Tom.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What were people singing just there?

HUIZENGA: Well, the piece is called "Stella Celi." And the text talks about ulcers of a terrible death. And it also says that the star of heaven has rooted out the plague. And, of course, the plague that we're talking about, like you said, is the Black Death here, which, according to some reports, wiped out about half of Europe.

INSKEEP: So we're not exactly talking about "Under The Boardwalk" here. This is not a love song.

HUIZENGA: (Laughter) Not at all.

INSKEEP: Although they did seem to give it a happy ending, I suppose, if it goes to the star of heaven has rooted out the plague.

HUIZENGA: And I think what you see, Steve, here in a lot of especially the earlier music is that there are these metaphors between physical health and spiritual health and that it makes a larger point that people have in mind the idea of frailty of life. And someone like J.S. Bach was no exception.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANTATA NO. 25")

MAX VAN EGMOND: (Singing in German).

INSKEEP: J.S. Bach wrote pandemic music?

HUIZENGA: Well, Bach was orphaned twice by the age of 10. He lost half of his 20 children and his first wife. He wrote music that could comfort in times of distress and music that directly, yes, confronted plagues in his "Cantata No. 25" from 1723. That's just a year after the Great Plague in Marseille, France, ended. And that killed over 100,000 people.

INSKEEP: Wow.

HUIZENGA: And here, Bach's text talks about things like the entire world as a hospital and children laid low with sickness. And in this excerpt, the baritone is singing in German my plague cannot be healed by any herb or ointment other than the balm of Gilead.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANTATA NO. 25")

VAN EGMOND: (Singing in German).

HUIZENGA: And, Steve, another important thing about this cantata is, indeed, its title. It's called "There Is Nothing Healthy In My Body" and plenty of references here to sickness and plague.

INSKEEP: There was a more modern kind of plague that Americans faced in - that the world faced, really, in the 1980s - AIDS.

HUIZENGA: Right. And the World Health Organization says that, to date, about 35 million have died from AIDS-related illnesses so far. And unfortunately, we can see some parallels with today's coronavirus, in that there were many who criticized the Reagan administration at the time for not confronting the virus quickly and honestly enough. And that, along with all of the death, can trigger rage. And musically, that's what we hear in the "Symphony No. 1," sometimes referred to as the AIDS symphony, by American Composer John Corigliano.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF CORIGLIANO'S "SYMPHONY NO. 1")

HUIZENGA: Steve, this is just this roiling, heart-on-sleeve elegy to friends that Corigliano lost to AIDS. The music is, by turns, tender and anguished, filled with moments of thunderous fury and, in a way, challenging us to respond to it. The first movement of the symphony is called "Of Rage And Remembrance." But let's hear a little bit from the second movement called "Tarantella," where you can hear a kind of musical hallucination in the fevered mind of an AIDS victim. It's pretty terrifying.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF CORIGLIANO'S "SYMPHONY NO. 1")

HUIZENGA: Just a little of the chaotic dementia found in John Corigliano's "Symphony No. 1," written in remembrance of friends he lost to HIV/AIDS.

INSKEEP: OK. So having gone from Black Plague music to AIDS music, is there any sign how composers and musicians are beginning to respond to COVID-19?

HUIZENGA: Well, you know, obviously, the crisis has really cruelly cut off the livelihood of countless musicians and composers and even, very tragically, taken the lives of some. We've seen performances online from home, donations being taken. And then there's the New York-based composer Lisa Bielawa, who is, as we speak, writing a choral piece. And she calls it "Broadcasts From Home."

INSKEEP: Oh, I can relate to that one. Go on, please.

HUIZENGA: (Laughter) Well, right. I'm at home myself right now, too. She's really telling the story of the coronavirus by collecting testimonials via social media from people who are in self-isolation and quarantine. And then she's setting those texts to music. And she shared some of that with me that she's working on. Let's take a listen to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT OTHER YOU STILL EXISTS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Where was music? Where was reading? Where was reading? Why wasn't I cleaning closets? I've finally succumbed to days of staying in bed. This lassitude might never end.

HUIZENGA: Steve, this excerpt from Lisa Bielawa's new piece is called "That Other You Still Exists." And it's part of a much larger work that she just started writing in response to the virus. And here, about 25 different musicians from all over the country recorded their own parts at home and sent them into the composer. And, you know, at this point, Lisa Bielawa doesn't know whether the premier of her piece will happen virtually online or in public. You know, it all depends on how soon the virus subsides.

INSKEEP: Tom, I'm delighted - if that's the word, given the grimness of the subject - delighted by the parallel between the Black Plague music you've sent us and what we've just heard in that, in each case, a musician took someone else's text, someone else's words, trying to make sense of this very human condition and made it beautiful through music.

HUIZENGA: And I think what you find is that the composers, while in distress or at least depicting distress, are really trying to tell the stories of regular people. And in times of distress, making important art that, hopefully, will reach other people, will have, hopefully, I think, some kind of soothing balm, some kind of cathartic healing. That's what you can hear, I think, in a lot of these pieces whether they are directly referencing plagues or the rage and despair of a more modern pandemic.

INSKEEP: Tom, be safe.

HUIZENGA: Thank you - you, too, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Music's Tom Huizenga.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT OTHER YOU STILL EXISTS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) It's not forever. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.