2020 might well be destined for the history books as the year of Covid-19, such has been the all-pervasive nature of its effects on our way of life. It has brought with it a great deal of uncertainty for the future, compliance and protest in equal measure and served as a considerable challenge to humankind, the likes of which haven’t been seen in a generation.
One of the great pleasures of music is that we can always turn to it in times of crisis, not lease those involving enforced lockdowns, leaving us ample time to don a pair of headphones, find a quiet corner and enter a stage of thoughtful contemplation on the state of the world.
In that same spirit, I have created a special Coronavirus playlist, composed of a selection of musical tracks which I believe hold significant relevance to our present time.
Opening our playlist is the 4th movement of Schumann’s Rhenish symphony, which was composed in 1850. This extraordinary piece of music remains one of the most enigmatic works ever to flow from the pen of this archetypal romantic composer.
You can access the track here:- https://open.spotify.com/track/30fwDmiuci2FvCZRGvXKNw
Inspired by a return visit to Cologne’s magnificent cathedral during which he witnessed a ceremony involving the ascension of an archbishop to a cardinal, the suggested character is Feierlich, meaning solemn.
Written in the rare and poignant key of Eb minor, the music is steeped in pathos. Schumann employs the use of French horns and trombones in a processional chorale.
There is a clever yet subtle use of imitation throughout (a simple fragment which is expanded upon more and more gradually as the movement progresses.)
The grave tone is maintained throughout until a somewhat unexpected brass fanfare in the remote key of B major announces its presence at 4.45. Applying our contemporary viewpoint, could we take the fanfare signal optimism in the form of a vaccine?
Following the 2nd brass statement, the strings take back the baton and amidst a bleak soundscape, the music slowly withers away.
Next up is the 2nd movement of Sergei Prokfiev’s Piano Concerto no.1. You can here it here:- https://open.spotify.com/track/6aRdQyVqnaqSZcLasyT7K4
The composer commenced composition in 1911 and finished the work the following year. Extroverted and precocious throughout, this is every bit the work of a young composer’s opening piano concerto (it was written when the Russian maestro was just 20 years old.)
We have witnessed many protests across the world at the perceived dithering of people in power i.e. politicians and the middle section contains an appropriately angry explosion which repeats the main theme quite forcefully.
The reason I have chosen to include this track is the deliciously disoriented atmosphere of the work, which I think matches nicely with what most of the world’s population has experienced in 2020.
Prokofiev winds the movement down with a touch of bizarre humour, the closing passages turning this way and that before finally settling on an unresolved chord which being to all intents and purposes ill fitting, somehow manages to sound like the perfect note on which to end this peculiar curiosity.
It would be remiss of me not to include a track which represents the general sense of chaos that has been at times a recurrent feature in the theatre of Covid-19.
For this, I have chosen Gayane’s colourful Sabre Dance. Written by Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian in 1942, it went on to become one of the signature pieces of 20th century popular music. Bizarrely, in 1948, it became a jukebox hit in the United States!
Listen to it here:- https://open.spotify.com/track/64Ljpz63XjSF8EWmjx48FI
Perhaps understandably, Khachaturian felt that the popularity of the work detracted from his other achievements and compositions.
Either way, the familiarity of the tune along with its erratic and disorderly pulse easily brings to mind the frequent scrambling attempts at compliance and regular change of direction to which we have all borne witness throughout the pandemic.
From the outset of this strange year, there has been an air of confusion and disorientation. One piece of music which might fit the bill if you were hoping to capture this “suspension of disbelief” is the Aquarium scene from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals. Here it is:- https://open.spotify.com/track/5dMbpL400WHjywjd4QnVwq
Sparkling piano passages, glissando-like runs and even the use of a glass harmonica all create an atmosphere of aimless dreamlike wandering – perhaps not so far from where we are now!
The theme of isolation prevails heavily throughout the 3rd movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata no.2 like a heavy, suffocating cloak. Listen to the track here:- https://open.spotify.com/track/4TD7dD00awK9ZvEynab0rR Composed as a slow funereal march, the leaden atmosphere is suggestive of the many elderley people across the world who been have cut off, isolated whilst shielding. There is a lamentation for this unwelcome new reality which has imprisoned them in their own homes with seemingly no exit plan or short-term escape route.
Across the world, we have witnessed many instances of anger spilling out onto the streets in the form of violent protest at perceived infringements to individual liberty and freedom. The revolutionary music of Beethoven’s Magnum Opus – his 9th Symphony – offers in its opening movement a vivid and pulsating picture of ill tempered rage. Here is one of the most famous recordings of all, performed by Herbert Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic:- https://open.spotify.com/track/5lStb1HePTXA5xZyB5NW5s
What does the concept of “lockdown” mean to us? Prior to this becoming a new reality, some people might have answered that it was something that occurred only in maximum security prisons and perhaps 3rd world dangerous cities in the grip of military dictatorships. Very few therefore could have anticipated such widespread and indiscriminate global use prior to the arrival of Covid-19. The music of George Frederic Handel is many things – often grandiose, regal and flamboyant but almost always profound in equal measure. The idea of lockdown as a preventative, containing measure with its many subsequent consequences can be felt when listening to Handel’s Keyboard Suite in D minor:- https://open.spotify.com/track/1upQiytDIEZfl9ItruoXuC?si=G3QwNbubRQe3HrTwCo62Gw
The early stages of the Coronavirus saw widespread panic buying and in many unfortunate cases, instances of great selfishness by those who rushed to stock up on supplies, often needlessly therefore depriving others of their basic necessities. Vivaldi’s evergreen work The Four Seasons contains the spirited and animated Summer which to my mind suggests the character of self-preservation and everyone for themself. See if you agree here:- https://open.spotify.com/track/5rXIMpNvTony4Ac0rzOUPW?si=ZjuMAwdURAGzpWgxG5GNUQ
It’s always nice to end on a positive, optimistic note. Therefore, what better way to close than with Elgar’s superb Nimrod from his Enigma Variations:- https://open.spotify.com/track/7zVVB70NVYOQA9v6hLI72W
The music speaks to a sense of hope and unity, however it is interesting to note that Elgar actually intended this piece to represent friendship.
The name of this variation refers to Augustus Jaeger, a close friend of Elgar’s who gave the composer useful advice but also severe criticism, something Elgar greatly appreciated. Elgar later related how Jaeger had encouraged him as an artist and had stimulated him to continue composing despite setbacks. Nimrod is described in the Old Testament as “a mighty hunter before the Lord”, Jäger being German for hunter.
Once, when Elgar had been very depressed and was about to give it all up and write no more music, Jaeger had visited him and encouraged him to continue composing. He referred to Beethoven, who had a lot of worries, but wrote more and more beautiful music. “And that is what you must do,” Jaeger said.
For that we can all be grateful. Until the world returns to some kind of normality, there is always music.