The Jacksonville Symphony’s Courtney Lewis says that, in trying times like these, we can all find strength and solace in the works of the masters.
A friend recently asked me what symphonic music I think feels of the moment, what music feels like now, as we adjust to a new normal of social distancing and uncertainty. I often use music to change my mood, so I immediately began to list pieces that feel optimistic and joyful, the opposite of the way many of us have been feeling under lockdown. But one of music’s greatest gifts is the solace it can offer when we listen to something that sounds like our feelings, be they contemplative, grief-stricken, lonely or ambivalent.
In times of grief, two pieces of music have offered me strength. The first isn’t symphonic, but choral: Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. In just over an hour, Rachmaninoff mixes together ancient Greek and Russian chants in a glorious tapestry of unaccompanied song. There is something comforting in the music’s timeless and otherworldly qualities. Over a hundred years earlier, Beethoven penned his greatest symphonic ode to human mortality in the slow movement of the Eroica, his Third Symphony. This second movement is entitled ‘Funeral March’, and in it Beethoven confronts the searing agony of loss while celebrating the noble and indomitable nature of the human spirit.
For many people living alone, quarantine has been a time of loneliness. No music sounds more lonely than the solo piano that begins the second movement of Mozart’s great A major Piano Concerto, K. 488. Mozart presents us with someone searching for meaning in emptiness. After the piano’s solitary entry, the orchestra responds with paragraphs of keening canons: forlorn voices in the night.
Sibelius’ Seventh and Vaughan Williams’ Fifth symphonies both offer space for contemplation and optimism. Sibelius’ is the more severe piece, beginning with an uncompromising timpani stroke and an ominous rising scale in the strings. It’s a short symphony, but it feels like the longest 20 minutes in music: a great biography charting a life’s challenges and triumphs. We leave it with a renewed sense of strength. Vaughan Williams’s Fifth was dedicated to Sibelius. The Englishman admired the Finn’s technique of seamlessly moving between different moods and tempi. The Fifth offers more instant gratification than anything else on this list; it takes us into a world of pastoral balm, of heartfelt expression and bigness of spirit. I’ve found myself listening to it rather a lot over the past few weeks.
Perhaps uncertainty is the most striking characteristic of today’s world. I often think that it’s one of the most powerful forces in the music of our time, too. Mozart and Beethoven’s music reflects the decorative values and relative certainties of their societies, just as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring channels the destructive forces that were welling up at the beginning of the 20th century. For me, the music of today needs to reflect the vast ambiguities and complexities of modern life, the loneliness of the great city, the rejection of the dogmas of the past, the impossible complexity of global politics, the pressure on the individual to make sense of it all. Thomas Adès’s incredible score Tevot seems to grapple with all this. Tevot is the Hebrew word for “arc,” and the piece is just that: a vessel carrying us across troubled waters. Written for a huge orchestra (we had planned to end our season with it in June), it tells a redemptive story starting with shimmering harmonics high in the strings, moving through turbulent storms during which we feel as if we might be sucked down the plughole, before finding a calm resolution in music of heartbreaking beauty.
At some point in the not-so-distant future we will emerge from the grip of the pandemic, and it will be a time of great joy. I know of no music that expresses joy in such an irrepressible way as the finale of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The symphony is an enormous journey from darkness to light, from a funeral march to an ecstatic dance. In the months before he wrote it, Mahler had discovered Bach, falling in love with the master’s way of writing densely for all the instruments together (what we call “counterpoint.”) By the movement’s conclusion we feel as if all creation is jumping for joy. It’s absolutely guaranteed to quicken your pulse and put a smile on your face!
By Courtney Lewis, Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony