Siege Diaries 4/1/2020

I received an email this afternoon, reminding me that one of the payments for my Toronto Symphony Orchestra subscription for next year would come out on Friday.  I had wondered whether those payments would still be going forward.  I’d pulled the trigger on subscribing on the last day of the “early bird” special back in early March, while the pandemic declaration was still about a week away. So, given the situation, I paused for a moment to think…

And then I stopped thinking about it.  Cancelling is not an option.  It’s not an option for the same reason why I have not requested a single refund for any of the tickets for concerts now cancelled. And it’s simple:  This will end.  When it does, I want there to be a Toronto Symphony.  I want each of those musicians to have made it through the crisis.  Watching how orchestras, opera companies, and individual musicians have stepped up to the plate to offer their art in times of darkness, I know I would be absolutely bereft without them.   So my subscription payment?  It’s a down payment on hope, Hope, as I’ve said before, is not the virtue of simply sitting and waiting for things to happen.  Hope requires action.  And for me, who finds myself still with a steady salary, with no real debt–at this point, those subscription fees are not concert tickets, but something I can do now to help.  I certainly do hope with all my being that they will be concert tickets, that this time next year I’ll be in a concert hall without fear of hearing each cough or sneeze, but my support does not depend on that certainty.

The Washington Post’s classical music critic, Michael Andor Brodeur, wrote a piece yesterday about the resurgence of classical music during this crisis.  He started with the easy answer, the answer that many classical music radio stations have used for years about classical music being “relaxing”, but then then, he took it further, making it clear that “relaxing” does not mean “boring” or “putting the listener to sleep.”

So what is it that makes classical music “relaxing,” anyway? What about it makes people “relax”?

Certainly there’s no rule that the music itself be a bubble bath. I spent this past week managing my own pandemic anxieties by clicking between the dark woods of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle (which ran nightly on the Met’s Live in HD site) and the blinding blasts of Krzysztof Penderecki (the Polish composer of the terrifying “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” who died this week at 86 after a long illness), and I don’t exactly feel fresh from the spa. I feel like I’ve had the full panoply of my longings and terrors reflected back at me from my laptop. I feel understood.”

And there it is right there. We’ve tended to think of classical music as written at a high intellectual level by (mostly) boring old dead white guys.  Far from it.  As those who have read what I’ve written about Shostakovich’s music over the last year or so will know, his music reflects his engagement with his world–a world that was often horrible, both to him personally and in general.  His health sucked for most of his life. He lived through the Russian revolution and WW2 and Stalin’s terrors in the 30s.   Yet at the same time, he was incredibly loyal to his friends and family, and was a wonderful father. He enjoyed soccer and playing cards and, towards the end of his life, nature.   He had a biting wit.  And all of that is in the music.  All of those emotions.  And while his musical language is the one which touches me most deeply, he’s not alone.  You can find those emotions expressed in so many other works.  Look at Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony, shot through with his crashing disappointment in Napoleon Bonaparte, written as he also contemplated his growing deafness and considered suicide.  This is the same man who would produce the Ninth Symphony 25 years later–a work with a spectacular emotional palatte–which he never heard anywhere but in his head.  Look at the shimmering works of Mozart, who never reached his 35th birthday, or the sublimely ordered works of Bach, who lived to age 65.  Robert Schumann died in an asylum. Handel went blind in his last years, but died with a significant estate.  Can you enjoy this music without knowing the stories of its composers?  Without a doubt.  But knowing that they, too struggled in their lives, and still managed to produce works that are still invoking emotions in listeners years later.  I think anyone who takes the time to go down the rabbit holes of finding out about these works inevitably finds more depth and understanding that in turn can give us a way to express our emotions in a language that is universal, even though the way it is “spoken” differs from composer to composer.

And, of course, this applies outside the classical world as well.  I honestly believe that music is an absolute necessity for any society that considers itself human, and that music touches something deep in the soul.  Preserving the ability for us to make and enjoy this music–any music, of any culture–is an important key to our survival.