Music and Vision homepage

After Tragedy

<< Continued from last month

More letters received, following the tragic events of September 2001 and the ensuing events in Afghanistan. We still think it as important as ever to keep open the communications channels, so if you would like your comments published on this page, please complete our contact form and we'll attempt to keep this page updated.

From: Juliet Averay
Date: 22 September 2001

Another place, another September.....Much earlier that particular year, I had managed to book a ticket for a concert performance being given by the visiting La Scala company from Milan and scheduled to take place on my birthday in the coming September.

As the much-anticipated day approached, a great sporting and artistic celebration was already well under way; the autumn days were balmy, skies were blue, the whole place buzzing, animated, alive -- and the hosts seemed to be saying: 'We want to atone for the darkness of our recent past and make some small amends by creating a relaxed, happy and welcoming atmosphere for all our visitors.' And judging by the buoyant mood of the cheerful crowds swirling all over the city centre, and day after day of packed events, they were succeeding.

But that was before the night of September 5-6, 1972, the night that Palestinian terrorists struck at Munich's Olympic Village, killing numerous Israeli athletes and dashing the tentative optimism of a city yearning for acceptance and forgiveness.

Standing for a moment of silence in the National Theatre the next evening, every single member of that sorrowing and sombrely-clad audience must have pondered, as I did, the fateful coincidence which had brought the La Scala company to Munich on this very date for the first of only two performances of Verdi's Requiem. No-one who was not there can begin to imagine the sheer intensity and emotional impact of that performance conducted by Claudio Abbado. The magnificent soloists, all of whom donated their fees to the families of the victims, included Martina Arroyo, Fiorenza Cossotto, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and -- standing in for tenor Carlo Cossutta who was sick -- a 26-year-old Placido Domingo.

After that harrowing and unforgettable birthday, I never again expected Verdi's mighty, doom-laden Dies Irae to fill me with such terror and foreboding ..... but sadly, so sadly, I was wrong.

From: David Arditti
Date: 10 October 2001

I would also like to respond to Robert Steadman's diatribe on M&V against the traditional Last Night of the Proms, which, as we know, was largely abandoned by the BBC this year in response to the attacks on America.

Another composer, Adrian Williams, has already made some of the points, although unfortunately he seemed to want to take the opportunity to knock European integration, which I would have thought was just the sort of internationalism we should be intensifying in order to put world conflicts and the strife we are now experiencing firmly into the past. But internationalism should not involve abandoning the great and resonant artistic artifacts of our own more nationalistic past, where they have the power to engage, bind and cheer people, as they do at the traditional Last Night.

'Many people find the Last Night of the Proms an overblown and offensive evening of ... "entertainment"' says Mr Steadman. Who are these 'many people', may I ask, and is there a society of them, or have they got up a petition to ban the Last Night? Why does Mr Steadman not merely speak for himself? He may think the event 'jingoistic and imperialistic', but thousands queue up every year to take part, and millions enjoy the broadcasts. Surely, this is because the Last Night is one of the few great public events left, aside from football matches, at which the people can come together in a community of simple, straightforward and enthusiastic music-making in singing great tunes with gusto and and abandon. It is a uniquely English fusion of art-concert, patriotic celebration, folk-culture, jamboree and downright silliness, the equivalent to this nation of the Rio Carnival to the Brazilians, or Burns Night to the Scots.

A 'celebration of oppressive Empire'? The word does not occur in any of the songs sung regularly at the Last Night. Methinks Mr Steadman is stuck in dialectical wrestling-match with demons of his own imagining. He seems to be confusing this innocent frolic with the Nuremburg Rallies. He wishes for a Last Night celebrating 'peace, freedom and a world of partnerships'. What a high old time we would have at that one. Does he take time off from his composing career to write speeches for Mr Blair? As a matter of fact, Rule Britannia clearly does celebrate freedom, as perhaps does Land of Hope and Glory. I must admit that the words fitted to Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 are dreadful, and Elgar thought so too. However, they do have the benefit of being known, and of allowing that wonderful tune to be sung, a tune, which, viewed as abstract music, I believe to be greater than anything that was played in the substitute Last night, with the exception of Beethoven's Ninth. Then, Jerusalem is a magnificent Christian hymn, written by one of our greatest visionary poets, conjuring a vision of a more just world, set to appropriate music.

The substitute Last Night I found to be a curiously ineffective affair, particularly with the inclusion of the strange 'bleeding torso' of the Finale of the Ninth, so against normal Proms ethos, and there was a palpable sense of relief amongst the audience at being allowed to sing Jerusalem at the end. And the impromptu Auld Lang Syne finally was affecting.

Nevertheless, as a musical event fitting to the emotional gravitas of the moment, it was not in the same league as the wonderful concert that actually took place on the night of the atrocity, largely as had been previously programmed. The superb renditions that night of the Beethoven C minor piano concerto and Berlioz Fantastic Symphony by the Orchestre de Paris with Christoph Esenbach and Helne Grimaud left a memory for me that will last a long time, because it was an example of people not changing their plans, behaviour, tradition or culture in response to hellish aggression against their civilisation, but continuing, bravely and triumphantly, to do their job as exactly as expected and scheduled, by producing superb music under terrible circumstances. Moreover, the music itself was so great, delivered complete as the composers intended, that it was capable of absorbing and transmuting that day's events and leaving us with a realisation of great men's transcendent genius that in the end more than outweighs other men's evil.

From: Alan Mackay Fletcher
Date: 12 October 2001

At the beginning of this academic year, I sat with senior faculty to hear every student in the School of Music at Carnegie Mellon audition for our orchestra program. Since the opening concert of the season will include Mozart's Symphony No 35, most students played excerpts from this work, some of the most brilliant and joyous music in the repertoire. The individual parts, heard alone, without coaching or special preparation for Mozart's style, sounded awkward and threadbare.

On the panel, we commented, 'Can you believe he starts that movement with a down bow? Did you hear any articulation there at all? Is that sound meant to be delicate?' These are the minutiae of interpretation -- hints of the lessons that would necessarily follow as we prepare the piece. This was in the days before tragedy struck us all. We all will mark events of this time in our lives as 'before' and 'after' -- even reading magazines from before has a strange, dislocating feeling, as the writers didn't yet know what we know, and hadn't felt what we have felt.

The issues we raised among ourselves about students' knowledge of Mozart and their instrumental technique seem very small now. Then, not many days after Tuesday, September 11, I sat in on a first rehearsal of the Mozart. Work was going ahead; the concert will go on as scheduled, with the addition of special music as a meditation and tribute. In this rehearsal, the conductor spent an intense hour just with the wind, brass, and percussion players, tuning, balancing, voicing, and articulating their parts. The work was detailed, difficult, relentless. What sounded basically all right at the beginning took on shine and dimension as the simple musical sounds became Mozart, and his inimitable voice began to be heard.

Is it right that these young people, full of fear at what might happen to them -- to us all -- as a result of terrorism, set aside their natural feelings and focused entirely on art created more than two hundred years ago? In a passage that has been tremendously influential on American ideas about education and culture, John Adams wrote, 'I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.' He was writing to Abigail Adams. Their uniquely important and enduring partnership did indeed produce children who lived out that plan, as their son became President in a time of greater stability for the young Republic, and their distant progeny would include Henry Adams, one of our great writers and thinkers about culture.

Together, John and Abigail Adams are enjoying a well-deserved re-evaluation among the most important founders of this country. But, though it seems presumptuous to contradict our second President, the recent terrorist attack on America has led me to some contrary thoughts about the study of the arts. The fact is that we need to study music and painting, poetry and love, in every time and every place. In times of conflict and war, the arts do not become superfluous. We cannot wait for some future generation steeped in peace to renew the meaning and practice of human artistic creation. Alexander the Great, one of the most war-like and war-torn figures in history, was saturated in the study and love for art. The calamitous fourteenth century, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, also incubated new, perennially significant forms of music, poetry, and visual art. The very Reign of Terror and its horrifying misrule was simultaneous with the birth of Romanticism -- one of the pinnacles of European art in every way. And this last terrible time was the same era in which Mozart wrote his symphonies and operas.

On one of the first days of numb shock after that darkest Tuesday, I walked through the doors of Carnegie Mellon's College of Fine Arts to find an impromptu group of student brass players making music together. As the stirring and noble strains of the Naval Hymn rose across the quad, passersby paused -- in tears, in quiet appreciation, in deep thought. Can we doubt that it was right for students to reach into their new stores of experience and ability, in tribute to those who grieve? Henry James wrote, 'We work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.' For these nine students, this small moment of music-making was what they could do. In the rehearsal of the Mozart, in students' heartfelt, disciplined effort, the music's sparkling narrative of meaning emerged from the scratchy individual parts and their labored phrases. The students were finding light and uncovering it, working through their own doubt and dismay.

I felt certain in that rehearsal that Mozart's message lives, and is worth keeping alive. He wrote this work, amid his own personal difficulties, at a time of great social upheaval, contemporaneous with the Adams's efforts on behalf of our young country. His music says that there are human values more powerful than despair. He couldn't wait for better times to give this message, and we can't wait now, either. Soon I will travel to West Point for the performance there of a piece I wrote, commissioned by the Military Academy for its Bicentennial. In this piece, An American Song, our national motto e pluribus unum becomes music, as many fragments of familiar tunes, from spirituals and hymns to jazz standards, country and western ballads, pieces of American classical music and folk songs, are gently pieced together into a set of variations on America, the Beautiful. Unity is woven out of difference. There at West Point, where generations of heroes have studied war so that we might be free, we will also be studying music. For both pursuits, there is no time like the present.



 << Music & Vision homepage        Send feedback         More letters >>