First Responders: Thoughts on Boston, Music in Society, and a History Lesson

Woo!  I’m back!  I still have a recital and some exams to contend with, but I’ve missed writing these posts, and so much has happened in the music world over the past couple of weeks that just needs to be written about.

In the wake of the tragedy in Boston, I would like to share with you a message from the Director of the Music Division at the Boston Conservatory:

From Director of the Music Division, Karl Paulnack

In case you are confused by the fact that my Facebook account is presently set in Italian, this was posted on Thursday, April 18, three days after the bombing.  Though I was locked safely in a practice room 600 miles away when it happened, the event left me shaken.  My friend at the New England Conservatory saw the blast from her window.  My friend here, so far away, has a friend whose dad ran in the marathon that day.  My friend at MIT had said hello to the slain officer the day before the shootout.  I know that mass acts of violence occur on a daily basis all over the world, and this fact is sad and terrible, but few of us think about it because it does not affect us directly.  It is so rare that one of those acts touches people you know.  It creates a whole new perspective.  A perspective where the world is scary and gray, and where you know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone else who might have died today.

Karl Paulnack‘s message really got me thinking.  In a world that is scary and gray, a world where you are only a few degrees separated from tragedy every single day, music is necessary.  I mean, I listened to the Boston Symphony play Tchaik 5 over and over again for hours every day after the bombing, up until about three days ago.  Just to mull things over, restore my faith in humanity.  Music has the power to absorb horror, to dull pain.  This is why the idea of the musician as a first responder is so intriguing.

In 2009, Paulnack wrote an incredibly well-articulated essay (read it here), in which he explores the role of the musician in society.  He even cites the Quadrivium as a measure of music’s societal importance (which I totally wrote about here).  Paulnack points out that the reopening of Broadway after 9/11 was just as significant as the reopening of the stock exchange, and that we play music at weddings and funerals not to entertain but “to meaningfully experience these events…to grasp complex things.”  He writes, “A musician is more of a paramedic than an entertainer.  I’m not interested in entertaining you; I’m interested in keeping you alive.  Fully alive.  We’re a lot like cardiac surgeons; we hold people’s hearts in our hands every day.  We just use different instruments.” 

This essay really reinvigorated my perspective regarding the musician’s role in society.  I have long thought of music making — and most art — as a sort of social commentary, informed by personal experiences, current events, and cultural norms.  I still think this is true — but now I’m realizing that music is so much more vital to the human experience than simply as an expression of emotion or beauty or politics.

We find evidence throughout history of music being used “to understand things with our hearts when we cannot grasp them with our minds,” as Paulnack writes.  There’s a gorgeous 13th-century French motet (Fole acostumance/Dominus, to which, unfortunately, I could not find a link) describing “grief and worry” and “Villainy” — a world where “everyone lives in fear.”  “Dead is France,” the text exclaims, as the vocal line reaches its highest point.  Then, in the 15th century, Guillaume Dufay composed Nuper rosarum flores to celebrate the opening of Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence.  The music is at once celebratory and solemn, as the different voices sing different texts.  With a slow, grand melody, the cantus firmus (bass line) proclaims, “Terribilis est locus iste” (“Magnificent is this place”), awed by the sheer scope of human artistry and accomplishment as embodied by the just-completed cathedral.  The upper voices, meanwhile, contemplate the trials and joys of life through a sweetly winding melody.  “[The] devoted people of Florence,” they sing, “prays that anyone in agony…will deserve to receive…forgiveness of sins.”

Skipping way ahead, the 19th century was defined by the Romantic movement, a collective, artistic search for self — and doesn’t that define the human experience, really?  And what better way to explain or explore something as abstract and personal as self than through music?  Beethoven’s Fifth and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphonies are both built upon foreboding “fate” motifs — for Beethoven, perhaps derived from his continued hearing loss; for Tchaikovsky, perhaps representing his struggles with sexual identity and depression.  But regardless of each man’s personal obstacles, the music carries meaning for any listener.  Fate is a universal theme — a shared fascination, and a shared fear, that could not be understood without these musical efforts.

Much closer to the present: Benjamin Britten‘s incredibly powerful War Requiem, which used the ancient medium of the Latin mass as well as poetry by Wilfred Owen, a slain WWI soldier, to question the purpose of war and the meaning of loss.  Then there’s Luciano Berio’O King from his 1968 Sinfoniadedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly after his assassination — an eerie, dissonant exploration of violence, peace, death, and the mysterious human drive to hate, which the Civil Rights movement rose to counter.

You can write about these things, or paint about them, or dance about them… but history has shown that, when in doubt, people tend to sing about them.  Music is such an important part of understanding life, complete with all its hardships and triumphs.  And the musician is the purveyor of this understanding — the first responder at times of personal or societal distress.  Music is there when you need it most.  It’s something you can carry with you.  Something you can create, and share, and hold onto when there’s nothing else.  Just like the people of Boston held onto music, as heard at an interfaith memorial service held on Boylston Street this past Sunday (watch here).  Thousands of voices, united as one.  The lyrics say it all: “Let there be peace on earth…”

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