The loss of all live concerts is surely one of the saddest impacts of the current health crisis, and we should spare a thought for those freelance musicians who, even in the best of times, live close to the breadline. True, there are some brave attempts to use online technology, but we all know it is a poor substitute.
Yet in every crisis there is opportunity. Social isolation has made many reflect on our interdependencies and what truly defines a shared culture. We also have a chance to listen with new attentiveness to some of the huge store of recorded music that is now available.
Depending on your perspective, you may wish to experience the full horror of biblical plagues told through the dramatic choral tableaux of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt (1739). Or, if isolation causes you outright despair, why not go deeper into your mood by listening to Rachmaninov’s brooding tone-poem The Isle of the Dead (1908). Based on Arnold Böcklin’s evocative Symbolist picture of that name, the music overwhelms us with waves of grief and apprehension. But nobody could be blamed for preferring to escape the gloom by imagining festive crowds once again running wild on Italy’s streets. Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture (1844) employs music from his rarely performed opera Benvenuto Cellini, including a dizzying saltarello derived from the scene where the carnival revellers pelt Cellini’s love-rival with flour pellets.
Completists might need a sufficiently Herculean challenge to fill the hours. Try exploring large boxsets such as Bach’s Church Cantatas. The 193 sacred works provide the full gamut of spiritual responses, from melancholy introspection to joyful celebration.
Alternatively, Haydn’s symphonies, all 104 of them, trace the development of this good-humoured and devoutly religious composer across four decades. The later works fizz with wit and musical invention in the mature Classical style, but those written in the 1760s and 70s, during his “Storm and Stress” period, capture a real sense of unease. His “Farewell” Symphony No. 45 is famous for the disappearing act of its musicians during the work’s finale; a gesture which has acquired some irony in the current crisis. Yet it is the symphony’s first movement, full of minor-key tension and fatefulness, that leaves the stronger impression.
When the future is so uncertain, Gustav Mahler seems always to point us towards transcendence. The Adagio finale of his Ninth Symphony (1909) contrasts prayerful pleading with passages of mystical detachment. A soul-piercing high clarinet rises above a rootless melody in the lower strings, creating a vast inner space, unbridgeable by any earthly power. At its climax, Mahler asserts a Nietzschean “yes” to life, before everything is gradually let go. Tormented memories of a dead child diminish to whispered longing, as former heroic struggles ebb away to stillness.
For some, the lack of work pressure, traffic and aeroplane noise has allowed them to notice the arrival of spring as never before. They will find plenty of music to deepen their experience. Delius’s On hearing the first cuckoo in spring (1912) idealises Nature with a warm, sensual glow. No hint of nasty viruses here, just a delightful reverie. By contrast, Frank Bridge’s tone poem, Enter Spring (1926), is closer to the restlessness of our times. At first everything is unstable and dissonant, but renewal comes in vigorous music which causes the sap to rise.
Wagner always has something to say about the irreconcilable tensions of our modern world. His drama The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (1867) is rich in insights, placing music at the centre of social cohesion. The cobbler, Hans Sachs, is a poet-philosopher who complains that in the outside world, Wahn, alles Wahn: all is delusion. During the sombre Prelude to Act III, Sachs ponders the human condition accompanied by music of profound nobility and inwardness, before steering matters invisibly to their proper outcome. The crowd scenes, noisily exuberant and occasionally riotous, remind us what it means to be social creatures. In this instance, the disease to be defeated is the cynical ambition and pedantic criticism of Sixtus Beckmesser, who becomes universally despised. Meanwhile Sachs’s selfless wisdom is honoured by all.
Good music is a vital source of spiritual consolation, providing a glue which binds us together. Its absence will undoubtedly damage our social cohesion. So often today we take our musical culture for granted, because it is accessed with such ease at the click of a mouse. Yet the lost pleasures of live music should make it self-evident that we are more complete when we share beauty in the embodied presence of others. Music tells us we are more than victims of Nature’s whims, that our search for meaning amidst the mysterious grandeur of the Cosmos will not be in vain.