Pandemics and Composers

Let’s start with Guillaume de Machaut, the French composer, deemed the most important composer of the 14th century.  Born in 1300, he survived one of the worst plagues in recorded history, the Black Plague.   By 1348, the pandemic had devastated much of europe, and finally arrived in Northern France.    Interestingly scholars say Guillaume de Machautadvocated quarantine, saying it was the only effective form of defense.  Germs were not properly understood at this time, the belief was that the plague was a punishment from the divine.  Many of the aristocrats went into isolation during this period, and Machaut, in his early 40s was fortunate enough to go with them.    He would have entertained the aristocrats with his music and poetry.      He survived the great plague, which took about 7 years to pass. Shortly after this he composed his famous work, Messe de Nostre Dame (Mass of Our Lady), in the early 1360s Here is one movement of the work, Kyrie, with words meaning, “Lord have Mercy”

Listz saw Troublesome Times

We wait for centuries before there is another dramatic epidemic. The outbreak of 1832 certainly affected the composer Franz Listz, one of the greatest pianists of all time.  Born in 1811, Listz was 21 years old when he attended a charity concert to help support victims of the Perisian Cholera epidemic, arranged by Paganini.    This pivotal concert has such an impact on the young composer, that he makes the decision to become the greatest virtuoso pianist in all of Europe.   Perhaps grappling with the amount of tragedy affecting the world, he wrote the work Totentanz (Dance Of Death) for piano and orchestra, in 1838.    This work was certainly ahead for its time.   It explores a harsh style, and would have shocked audiences of the time:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u64Nu2N8CHw

Spanish Flu, and Four Great Composers

Stravinsky, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, and especially known for his work “Rite of Spring”, was 36 when the Spanish Flu, one of the world’s worst pandemics, began to affect the world.

Prior to the pandemic, Stravinsky, despite having written many great works, was struggling financially.  In 1918, in Switzerland Stravinsky caught the Spanish Flu.

In the meantime, Bela Bartok, the great Hungarian composer, catches the Spanish Flu at the same time in Hungary.  He spends 23 days in bed, and describes struggling with the horrible virus, unable to hear or think clearly.   In the meantime in New York, Rachmaninoff, who had just arrived from a transatlantic voyage, fell ill with the virus Also in New York, Prokofiev, the great composer, had recently started his national tour.   He was forced to cancel everything because concerts and public gatherings were banned.  Prokofiev wrote in his diary “I am gripped by complete panic about the influenza.  To flee from Bolshevism only to die from the Spanish Flu in New York!   What a morbid joke!”    Interestingly he was the only composer of these four who did not catch the virus.

Coronavirus Today

There is nothing new in the bans on public gatherings and concerts, quarantines, and fundraising.  Around the world, in locked down cities, musicians are practicing and writing.    Some are performing out their windows to boost morale for their neighbors.  In italy, quarantined musicians in an apartment complex produced this rather elaborate performance!

This Pandemic will pass as many have before, and great music will continue to live on and grow.  Even now, a great work is being written.   Many are finding solace during this challenging time, by picking up their instrument.