The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: NPR explores musical responses to epidemics and pandemics from The Black Plague through HIV-AIDS and COVID-19. Do you know of any more? | April 15, 2020

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By Jacob Stockinger

For many centuries, artists of all kinds have responded to major social catastrophes or crises. (Below is “The Dance of Death” from the Wellcome Library in London).

Musicians and composers are among them.

Many musicians are now performing and then live streaming music in their homes because of the need for self-isolation and quarantining or social distancing.

But here we are talking about composers who tried to translate the tragedy of sickness into sound.

So it is with the coronavirus and COVID-19.

But the writer puts in it in a context that transforms it into a kind of tradition.

Tom Huizenga, who writes for the “Deceptive Cadence” blog of NPR (National Public Radio), also provides audio samples of the work he is discussing.

He starts with The Black Plague of the 14th century and British composer John Cooke (below), who wrote a hymn to the Virgin Mary.

He offers an example of how Johann Sebastian Bach (below), who suffered his own tragedies, responded to a later plague in France in one of his early cantatas.

The story covers the HIV-AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and how both the disease and the government’s slow response to it inspired a symphony by the American composer John Corigliano (below).

The survey concludes with a contemporary American composer, Lisa Bielawa (below), who is in the process of composing a choral work that responds to the coronavirus pandemic.

Here is a link to the NPR story, which you can read and or else spend seven minutes listening to, along with the audio excerpts of the works that have been discussed.

Here is a link: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/04/13/827990753/when-pandemics-arise-composers-carry-on

What do you think of the story?

Do you know of other composers or musical works that responded to epidemics, pandemics and other public health crises?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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1 Comment »

  1. The Black Death began in the East and progressed along the trade routes to Europe and was by 1348 a pandemic that spread rapidly and produced great fear and anxiety as the sickness moved from place to place until about 1353.

    Comment by Lynn Courtenay — April 15, 2020 @ 4:18 pm


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