A literary sketch about music in times of hardship.
By Gabriel Sanchez-Ortega, Staff Writer
One of the last times I sang in public was for the funeral of a gentleman who was unknown to me. I found the old cheque for $150, made out to me by the Oakview Funeral Home for my participation in the service, which consisted of the singing of two hymns.
I do not know what they paid my accompanist, who played on the broken electric keyboard used inside the funeral home, but our presence was deemed meaningful enough that the wheelchair-bound widow looked for me after the service to shake my hand.
What is the meaning of music in our lives? We consume music so abundantly and never tire of it. In our modern world, music pervades every aspect of our lives and has its place even in times of grief.
However, it is not simply that music can have its place in our lives, but that at times we need music. This need for music is expressed most poignantly in times of hardship, when it may even transcend the needs of the body. In those circumstances, we seek music not only to find relief from the pressures of the world, but as a way to nourish the human spirit.
What this assertion means may not be immediately evident for us, who consume music every day out of sheer enjoyment. For this reason, I would like to share four stories about “music in times of hardship” to express the way in which music sustains and nourishes something profoundly human within us.
The first of these four stories, which inspired the title of this article, begins in the early days of World War II, in 1941. While imprisoned in a German prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany, Olivier Messiaen composed the Quartet for the End of Times.
The conditions were harsh. When Messiaen arrived at the camp, he was stripped of all his belongings. A sympathetic German officer gave him some pencils, erasers, and some music paper, and Messiaen began to write.
The premiere was held inside the camp before the prisoners and German officers, on the evening of January 15, 1941. The piece had been written for the fellow musicians in the camp, and its title was inspired by a passage from the Book of Revelations, the final book of the Christian Bible.
For many in attendance at the premiere, this would have been the first time that they had heard any sort of chamber music. Yet, as Messiaen would recall: “Never had I been listened to with such rapt attention and understanding.”
What could have compelled Messiaen and the other musicians to compose, rehearse, and to perform music, despite the cold, hunger, and the fear of death? Perhaps one would think that it was simply to pass the time, but this would not explain the “rapt attention and understanding” felt by the audience.
The circumstances surrounding the premiere of the Quartet for the End of Times were not an isolated incident. At almost the same time, in December of 1941, Dmitri Shostakovich, the Soviet-era Russian composer, completed his Symphony no. 7.
The Symphony no. 7 would become known as the Leningrad for its premiere inside the besieged city on August 9, 1942. The city had been under siege by the German army for nearly a year. Supplies had been cut off, and by the end of the war nearly two million people had died of starvation.
Despite such gruelling conditions, the orchestra rehearsed under the guidance of Karl Eliasberg, the conductor. The orchestra had been decimated—only fifteen members had survived. The Symphony no. 7 was performed at the Grand Philharmonia Hall in front of a large audience of civilians, and broadcast throughout the city.
Tatiana Vasilyeva, who witnessed the performance, said, “We listened with such emotion, because we had lived for this moment, to come and hear this music. This was a real symphony which we lived. This was our symphony. Leningrad’s.”
The hour-long ovation which ensued is a testament to the gratitude of the suffering crowd. If music uplifted the spirits of the audience, it also offered a shelter from the horrors and the inhumanity of the war. Music, in these moments, ennobles us, bringing us closer to those qualities which pertain to our human dignity, such as courage, compassion, and hope.
Music, which draws us away from our state of wretchedness, is the subject of the third story in this literary quartet. It is a story from literature, from Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. When Gregor transforms into an insect, he dares not get out of his room. Gregor’s sole excursion outside of his room occurs when he hears his sister playing the violin.
While the lodgers in the apartment mocked the performance, Gregor was so touched by his sister’s playing that the narrator writes, “Was he an animal that music had such an effect upon him?”
The juxtaposition of the two listening experiences is Kafka’s comment on human nature and its relation to music. Music is not on the page, or inherent in the sounds of the instrument—it exists in the hearts of those who hear it.
The fourth and final story is a recollection from my own memory. In my family, music is a tradition that was passed down. It began with my paternal grandfather, who had been an opera singer in Mexico. It was passed down to me by my father, who had been a classical pianist.
When my grandfather grew old, he could no longer sing. All that remained of his voice and his music were a few live recordings, which my father compiled into an album and offered him as a gift on his 90th birthday.
My grandfather has since passed away, but the recordings remain. Listening to those recordings brings me back to a moment engraved in my memory—to a place outside of time. We were all gathered at my grandfather’s house. It was morning. The light was streaming through the blinds of the living room. And we listened to my grandfather’s voice.
Gabriel Sanchez-Ortega is an Arts and Culture staff writer for Trinity Times, and a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, studying English, Philosophy, and Creative Expression and Society. He holds a Performance Diploma in Voice from The Glenn Gould School of The Royal Conservatory of Music.