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Hymns to the Silence: Music and Solace in a Time of Crisis

The composer Howard Goodall looks at how music has helped to express, escape and mourn previous traumas, and provides his own playlist to pass the pandemic.

Hymns to the Silence
Music and Solace
in a Time of Crisis

The composer Howard Goodall looks at how music has helped to express, escape and mourn previous traumas, and provides his own playlist to pass the pandemic.

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You can listen to Howard Goodall’s Hymns in the Silence playlist on Spotify.

I am sitting at a desk composing, as I have done for most of my life. Some aspects of it feel familiar — the techniques that have been my bread and butter, structure and form, melodic, rhythmic and harmonic content, orchestration and so on. Other aspects of it are different now, for example, the number of times I ask myself why I am doing it. I am pretty sure many of my fellow composers, as well as authors, poets, painters, sculptors, dramatists, are feeling the same disorientation.

First, the obvious self-doubts: we’re not front-line health workers, we’re not feeding people, driving buses, keeping the utilities running or delivering supplies, in fact we’re not essential in any crisis-priority sense. One of our daughters is teaching to multiple online classes at her large London comprehensive school the other is an epidemiologist working flat out on COVID-19 research. Who is doing vital work in our family at the moment is pretty obvious, and it isn’t the composer dad, I am well aware.

Someone is writing right now, in the midst of this awful crisis, the music we hear that captures our fear, our loss, our perseverance, the courage of those that care for us, the energy of renewal led by a younger generation.

Second, all composers appreciate that performers are in a worse situation since we can still at least write, whereas actors, dancers, singers and instrumentalists are physically prevented from getting in the same room as an audience and doing what they do (notwithstanding the current blossoming of virtual performances and tutoring experiences).

Third, the world is already bursting at the seams with music. There’s more music out there, recorded, than a single person could possibly listen to if they started now and listened to something new for the rest of their lives. That said, as people retreat into lockdown they have – quite understandably – defaulted to their favourite playlists, for the comradeship of the familiar, for a reminder of the world they’ve left behind, where music was so often an expression of joy, of communal warmth, of freedom.

So what role is there for the new and unfamiliar? Who will want the bedroom cantatas, kitchen ballets and garden shed double albums we’re cooking up?

From Trauma to Symphony

One assumption we may make is that people in the post-virus world will want escapism. The novelty of mainstream jazz after World War One swept much of the developed world, as did the light-hearted films of Charlie Chaplin, for example, yet that’s only part of the story. Silently underpinning the post-war high spirits of the early 1920s was also a deep, dark, aquifer of grief, as millions across Europe lost loved ones to the war and then to the ‘flu pandemic of 1918-19. That grief sought expression and solace, and it found both in music.

A lot of it was new music, even though it may seem to us now that, for example, Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending (composed in 1914) was born old, stylistically speaking. Charles Hubert Parry’s uplifting hymn (in support of women’s suffrage, initially), Jerusalem, composed in 1916, set to Blake’s 1804 rallying-cry for what we’d now call Christian Socialism, was followed by his tender Songs of Farewell (1916-18), commemorating the deaths of his students and friends in the war. Parry himself died in that 1918-19 ‘flu pandemic.

The sombre beauty of Elgar’s Cello Concerto (1919) stands in marked contrast to the confidence and vitality of his Violin Concerto and Second Symphony of the pre-war years. Holst’s The Planets Suite was composed in 1914-16, and not performed till after the war. In it he captures the dread threat of war, in its thundering first movement, Mars, the Bringer of War, and also the possibility of hope and renewal with Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, the movement whose soaring melody was in 1921 adapted to set a poem by British diplomat Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, I vow to thee, my country. The original poem was written between 1908 and 1912, significantly revised in 1918 to reflect upon the human sacrifice of the war.

As for World War Two, pacifists Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten both wrote choral masterpieces whose themes confronted the tragedy of the conflict, Tippett’s A Child of Our Time was composed between 1939 and 1941 and premièred in March 1944, and Britten’s War Requiem, composed in 1961-2 for the reconsecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. Tippett’s secular oratorio, A Child of Our Time, for which he also wrote the text, was prompted by the Kristallnacht pogroms that erupted across Nazi territories in Europe in November 1938.

Perhaps the most famous of all new classical works that were first performed in World War 2, however, is Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, Leningrad, dedicated to the people of the city, still besieged by Axis forces when it was first performed in Samara, USSR, March 1942, and actually performed from within the starving city in August of the same year (loudspeakers played this performance from the Russian front lines outwards to the Nazi forces surrounding them, as an act of defiance). A performance conducted by Arturo Toscanini in New York in July of that year to demonstrate solidarity with Russian allies coincided with Shostakovich being on the front cover of Time magazine.

Hope and Discord

The salient point about all the examples above is that they were brand new works, not familiar old chestnuts. Indeed, Adrian Boult, who conducted the first public performance of Holst’s The Planets, thought it unwise to play the whole suite lest audiences became confused, bored or put off by the modernity of the piece, deciding to play only five of the seven movements at the February 1919 première. It was not heard publicly in its full version until November 1920.

At the close of World War Two the world was in shock, as the horrors of the genocides perpetrated in Europe, in the Soviet Union and in the Japanese Empire were exposed, not to mention the detonating of two atomic bombs. This surely explains the angry dissonance of much classical music in the late 40s and 50s and some jazz. Bebop was many things: complex, rhythmically adventurous, harmonically nuanced, improvisational, highly contrapuntal, moody and innovative, but to describe its surge and breakout in the immediate post-war years as escapist fun would not be correct.

To hear live music of untroubled joy in the late 1940s you would probably have had to travel to South America, for example to Brazil to hear samba and bossa nova, or to Cuba to hear mambo, són and rumba.

Whilst in both world wars there were plenty of morale-boosting popular songs to distract suffering peoples from the grimness of what was all around them, there were other songs that did not flinch from the sad truths they confronted, none more so than an unexpected 1939 hit, nestled alongside Glenn Miller’s dreamy Moonlight Serenade and Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow, Abel Meeropol’s Strange Fruit, sung by Billie Holiday.

Though the USA in 1939 had not yet entered the war, Strange Fruit is the exact opposite of an escape from reality, its harrowing subject matter being the lynching of African Americans. Meanwhile, in wartime Britain, Ross Parker and Hughie Charles’ We’ll Meet Again (1939), Tommy Connor & Eddie Pola’s Till the Lights of London Shine Again (1939), and Walter Kent & Nat Burton’s (There’ll be Bluebirds over) The White Cliffs of Dover (1941), all became enormously popular, as did Cole Porter’s Every Time We Say Goodbye, for an America in 1944 with hundreds of thousands of its service personnel scattered across the globe.

All of these songs are ostensibly about hope, the future, survival. Musically speaking, though, the mood of all of them is an aching melancholy.

Everyone who sang along to Vera Lynn’s iconic recording of We’ll Meet Again during the war knew that the phrase was an aspiration, rather than, for many, a reality. The Queen’s name-checking of it during her 5 April Coronavirus broadcast could only have sounded an upbeat tone stripped — as it was — of its music. It should also be remembered that one of the best-selling record releases of 1944 was Kathleen Ferrier singing Che Faro?, from (German, note) composer Christoph Gluck’s 1762 opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, its English lyrics asking, poignantly: What is life to me without you?/What is left if you are dead?/What is life without my love?

The Need to Commemorate and Mourn

After this pandemic is over many will want to enjoy their music collectively, loudly, joyfully, as they did before the crisis. There will be other emotional needs to address, though. Some will need to mourn the loss of loved ones, to grieve together.

Music will be central to those commemorations. There will be new music commissioned in memory of those that have died. Like our ancestors before us, we will want this tragedy to be marked and for the sacrifice and bravery of others not to go unnoticed. Music will be part of that tribute. This time, alongside their patients, the fallen will so often be doctors and nurses. Punctuating our sorrow will be ricochets of anger at political failures and incompetences. Novels and dramas will be written to help us investigate, debate and move forward.

This time… the fallen will so often be doctors and nurses. Punctuating our sorrow will be ricochets of anger at political failures and incompetences. Novels and dramas will be written to help us investigate, debate and move forward.

The huge social cost of unemployment in hitherto working-class communities that scarred the UK in the late 1970s and early 80s was brilliantly dissected and humanised in Boys from the Blackstuff (1980-2) by Alan Bleasdale, and the film (2000) then musical of Billy Elliot (2005-), the dynamic conflict of which partly came from its sub-plot centred on the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, have been able to remind subsequent generations what these traumatic political events meant to the affected communities.

The defining artwork of the post-virus period of renewal might be a film, a play, or a musical drama. The Spanish Civil War was chillingly evoked in (and symbolised by) a painting, Picasso’s Guernica. The AIDS pandemic produced Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, Matthew Lopez’ The Inheritance and Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent (itself based on Puccin’s opera La Bohème) on the stage alone. I was struck when I visited South African schools in 2006 how singing was being used throughout the school day, in all age groups, to educate children how they could survive the pandemic there.

The Voice of the Future

Music has had a long association with healing, both as therapy and as catharsis. The Civil Rights movement in America is unthinkable without the songs that became its inextinguishable voice, and the centuries of slavery that preceded it were accompanied by the singing of spirituals. Go Down, Moses may re-tell a 2600-year-old legend of desert exile but to the slaves that sang it in 19th century America it was as heart-wrenchingly contemporary a cry as it could possibly be: let my people go... The sound of music not as mere entertainment, but music as a lifeline, music as witness to injustice, music as the hope of survival and redemption.

To give thanks for his survival from the 1346-53 Black Death (which claimed an estimated 60% of Europe’s population), the French poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut composed Messe de Nostre Dame, for Reims Cathedral, where he took a new job after his isolation. It wouldn’t have been ‘popular’, or a ‘hit’ in the modern sense, nor would anyone any distance from Reims have known about it at the time but it is remarkably still with us, still performed, still meaningful to those that sing or hear it. You can find several recordings of it, 670 years later. That is some memorial to his time.

So I am holding on to this. None of us knows what will be remembered or cherished from our time by future generations, and that goes for all artistic endeavour. On 16th March 1750, George Frideric Handel’s penultimate oratorio, Theodora, was produced in London in difficult circumstances. The previous of his 20 or so oratorios and 40-odd operas seen in London had been mostly great successes, so the dreadful flop of Theodora was both unexpected and distressing to the 65-year-old composer.

Why were its performances next to empty? Well, London experienced an earthquake shortly before the première, part of the tectonic disturbances that resulted, catastrophically, in the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of November 1755. So Handel’s well-to-do audience fled to the country, with the Bishop of London’s admonition that it was God’s punishment for their depravity ringing in their ears. Theodora contains music of heartbreaking beauty. Theodora’s facing death with the aria, Angels, ever bright and fair, Take, O Take me to your Care is one of the loveliest things Handel ever wrote, in a crowded field. And yet, Theodora, shunned by contemporary audiences, quickly sank into musical oblivion. It was re-discovered and revived, often staged as an opera, starting in the 1960s, and has finally been recognised for the masterpiece it is. That’s a long wait.

So it’s as well not to second guess what posterity will embrace and what it will ditch. But something that someone is writing right now, in the midst of this awful crisis, will be the music we hear that captures our fear, our loss, our perseverance, the courage of those that care for us, the energy of renewal led by a younger generation. Something someone is writing will be the voice of our time, for all time.

Apart from anything else, we are all discovering that when we stand on the edge of an abyss, everything dissolves down, ultimately, to love. Not just romantic or familial love, either. Nurses holding a stranger’s hand – in the absence of their family – as they die, in COVID-19 wards right now are demonstrating a profound, selfless compassion that humbles us all. 

How else do we articulate our love and our gratitude, for those dearest to us and those whose names we don’t know, than in poems, in books, in films, in plays, operas, symphonies, cantatas and musicals, in paintings, in sculptures, in dance, and perhaps most of all, in song? Love is all you need.

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