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In times of hardship such as this current moment in time, our collective focus rightfully tends to gravitate toward basic needs such as providing assistance, food, or medicine for vulnerable people and the wider population. As a consequence of calamity, people risk losing their job, their security, and their physical or psychological health.
Historically, artists always seem to struggle in particular, perhaps as a result of their craft not being considered vital to the survival of a society. These days we’ve seen musicians having to cancel tours and artist-practitioners losing work like tutoring and commissions. But in the past, there have been many cases in which composers, forced by sudden consequential conditions like war or disease epidemics, managed not only to keep working but to create incredibly powerful, unique, and heartfelt pieces of music.
Music can help society overcome hardship and transform hopelessness into resilience and positive energy. Let’s look at three cases in recent history where composers had to face limitations in order to keep writing what would become musical masterpieces.
Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale (1919)
In 1914, World War I began and many artists were affected by this terrible event. Stravinsky had just premiered his most groundbreaking ballet piece the year before, The Rite of Spring, scored for an enormous orchestra which shocked audiences and caused a stir of controversy for its subject and style of choreography.
Not only that, but the work displayed compositional choices and techniques that were never before devised. Among these, the use of unusual registers and techniques for certain instruments such as the bassoon, the use of polytonality (superimposing ostinati in different keys at once), complex meter changes and bizarre ways to present musical material with accumulation, stratification and juxtaposition of musical material instead of thematic development — as had been the musical custom since the Classical period.
After the outbreak of World War I, Stravinsky had to face restrictions in the availability of orchestral opportunities. Substantial productions that could finance big orchestras were out of the question, so the Russian composer had to focus on chamber music. This didn’t stop his creativity, and Stravinsky kept working on pieces for solo instruments or small ensembles. As the war went on, the composer — who had to provide food for a family of five including himself — was left nearly destitute.
He started thinking about how to overcome the situation and decided to write a new work called The Soldier’s Tale: a theatrical performance for a small ensemble and an actor. The plot tells the story of a soldier who sells his fiddle to the devil in exchange for a book which reveals events that will happen in the future, and with this knowledge he becomes rich. The work is conceived under restrictive circumstances, but Stravinsky seems to thrive in the lack of freedom:
“My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” (from the book Poetics of Music)
Isn’t this compositional resilience at its best?
The work itself is a true masterpiece. Stravinsky transfers his techniques of stratification and segmentation of motifs, polytonality and rhythmic inventiveness to a smaller ensemble with just as much success as in his works for larger orchestras (for example, the percussive burst at 0:54). In doing so, he was silently reinventing the scope of chamber music. His is one of the first (if not the first) chamber pieces to contain a solo for percussion (at 57:15).
Unfortunately, Stravinsky’s plan to tour Europe with The Soldier’s Tale was to face another dramatic incumbency: the Spanish Flu. This is a rather grim similarity to the present situation, since the virus was in fact related to COVID-19. The Spanish Flu belonged to the same family of viruses (H1N1) with an exceptionally high mortality rate, ultimately killing between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. Many of the performers in the theatre company became ill, including the composer himself who was confined to bed, “under piles of blankets and with his teeth chattering” (from What Killed the Great and Not So Great Composers).
Luckily though, Stravinsky recovered from the Spanish Flu and was able to keep working and gifting the world with his amazing compositions for years onwards.
Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (1929-1930)
This concerto was commissioned to Maurice Ravel by the Austrian concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had his right arm amputated due to an injury sustained during World War I.
A physical impairment such as this is any musician’s worst nightmare. But how can a piano concerto be written with such an evident limitation, especially for a keyboard instrument? This is when brilliant composers such as Ravel show us that anything is possible in music, provided we are determined enough to transform what looks like weakness into strength and character.
The writing in this work is simply astounding; I invite you to listen to the piece above and close your eyes when the piano comes in. I am sure nobody would think that the piece is played with only one hand (the left no doubt) if you didn’t already know. When you open your eyes, you’ll be watching a masterful pianist paying tribute to the great Wittgenstein in the only proper way.
The piece starts with a nebula of sound, nondescript and hazy, from which the main theme emerges from the lowest pits, carried by a contrabassoon and then taken by French horns. To me, this resembles the torment of a human being who has figured out the despair of not being able to do what he or she loves the most. It builds up in an orchestral crescendo, just like anger sometimes builds up in the souls of those who cannot rebel against such a condition, when around 2:00 the whole orchestra discloses its full power.
At 2:34, after a crescendo, the piano enters with a cadenza, alternating a pedal on the low register to a melody harmonized in fifths and octaves. The piano part comes in with a tinge of arrogance, as if the pianist were saying: “I’m going to show you what I can do with only one hand.”
Ravel is a seasoned composer by this time — this concerto is among the last compositions that he will give to the world. The French composer knows well that the only way for a piano to counterweight a full orchestra is to be presented alone, at a loud dynamic and in antiphonal response to the orchestral intervention. The choice of using a heavy, low register also contributes to the power and weight of this entrance.
Moreover, Ravel knows very well how to write for piano and the illusion of playing with two hands is accomplished with a wonderful pedaled writing (2:50 onwards). Notice how some of the fingers play accented notes and some others don’t, contributing to the sense of different melodies going on at once.
From 3:28 on, the writing alternates between low and mid registers, introducing the second important theme of the concerto, presented here in a modal fashion (D Lydian, one of the brightest yet most nondescript modes). The theme moves then towards the upper register, transposed upwards, and evolves into chords that gradually become more distant to reach the extremities of the instrument (4:59). The first piano section ends in a cadence characterized by intense technical difficulty. When the orchestra comes back in, it is pure bliss — and from then on, the piano shows very diverse feelings and tints: from playfulness to sweetness and sorrow, contributing to a marvellous composition.
There are obviously a lot of repertory studies for the left hand alone, but this one is special because it displays the ability of the composer to transform weakness into character and constraint into invention, a condition where opposites meet and feed on each other. Feeling even more poignant in these days of limited resources and the need for resilience, this piece is proof that art can spring from even the darkest conditions.
Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (1941)
When the French organist and composer Olivier Messiaen was captured by the Nazi army and taken to the Stalag VIII-A concentration camp, he was 31 years old. Apparently, when the soldiers checked his pockets they found scores and sketches instead of supplies (he was enrolled as a nurse). The composer was allowed to write for whatever ensemble he could find in the concentration camp and he came up with the Quartet for the End of Time for piano, cello, clarinet and violin; a fairly unusual ensemble.
Obviously, he had to adapt to whatever instruments and musicians were available in the camp and ended up premiering the work on rather old and out of tune instruments. He later stated that: “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension” during the premiere for the people in the camp (from All Music Guide to Classical Music: The Definitive Guide to Classical Music). His music was clearly speaking a language that the people in the camp could relate to and deeply understand, a sort of shared code language of sorrow, a dialect in which music is particularly fluent.
Messiaen is known for his interests in Indian music and bird chants. He came up with the concept of “non-retrogradable rhythms,” which means employing palindrome rhythm figurations (successions of notes that can be read from left to right and vice versa without changing), as well as “modes of limited transposition” (for example, the whole tone scale, of which only two series exist: C and C#. Hence the possibilities of transposing this scale are limited only to two).
It is evident that Messiaen regarded this historic war-torn period and his condition as a prisoner as being the end of times, which the piece reflects on a musical level. For example, the first movement (“Liturgie de Cristal”) is characterized by the use of a sequence of 17 chords in the piano which cycle through the whole composition, unvaried, and interlock with 5 notes by the cello.
These cycles “remain the same, whichever direction time runs, evoking the feeling of eternal and the divine” (from The Norton Anthology of Western Music). Not only that, but even more curiously the piano cycle repeats at the end of bar 8 (0:38 in the video above) and it’s now written in a different way because it falls on a different beat in the bar. It would take 29 repetitions of the same pattern to return to the original alignment (377 beats); it would take 12,441 beats to return to the same piano/cello alignment.
This numerical information is quite fascinating as it suggests that we may be hearing only a portion of the real piece, given that this is music composed in a cyclical manner, just like we live through cyclical portions of eternity. Messiaen was a religious and spiritual person and being confronted with death and what seemed to be the end of his days, stimulated further his assessment of philosophical concepts such as time and the impermanence of the human condition.
Fortunately, these were not his last days and he would live on to compose more and pass on his expertise as a teacher to a new generation of important 20th Century composers such as Boulez, Stockhausen, and Xenakis. This work is an evident example of a composer being able to resort to a very personal and unique compositional style which is also relevant to the conditions in which they were writing.
Messiaen actively managed to transform fear and horror into one of the most moving pieces in the contemporary classical repertoire (and one of my favourites of all time), the “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus:”
This piece does not have a recurring cycle, but is a simple duet where the piano seems to mark the passing of time while the cello dwells on long notes which seem to be suspended between the finite nature of human time and the everlasting nature of eternal time. The composer and those who attended the premiere, trapped in a concentration camp, seemed to abide this dimension where time is suspended and where they are concerned with basic survival needs, far from the mundane preoccupations which delimit the unfolding of time in times of peace (work, travel, holiday and so on); a condition that appears sadly relatable during these times of isolation.
Music shares its fundamental characteristics with life: it is made of a combination of perception and memory, without which there can be neither human life as we know it nor music, either. Therefore, music seems to be linked to the very essence of the human condition and acts like a rejuvenating source of life energy in times when life itself seems to be drained out by sorrow and preoccupation.
This article is an invitation to all fellow musicians and readers to make the most with what history has presented to us: a situation of hardship and precariousness, in which we fear for our lives, the ones we love, and the wellbeing of society as a whole.
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