Music for Our Time

When everything is a bit monotonous except for the bad stuff, it pays to find something new. But for me I think the best way I can realize this is by making an effort to look into what is already available, that predates me and my concerns. Of the pieces that follow there are a number of which I would already have been aware, but I hope that thinking about them in this light will deepen the way I engage with them, not only now but also into the future. 

  1. ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ by Aaron Copland

(recommended recordings: by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra)

It was hearing this again that prompted me to write this post. The sound of the timpani and the trumpets offers a signal that everyone should fall silent for a moment. But this is not as a sign of respect for the bigwigs or royal heads of our society. This piece is dedicated to those who do the jobs that at other times might be beneath our notice. Writing in 1942, when the U.S. had just entered World War II, Copland was inspired in his composition by a speech given by then-Vice President Henry A. Wallace, who said: “the century which will come out of this war […] must be the century of the common man.” Copland would later echo the same sentiment, saying, “It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army. He deserved a fanfare.”

2. “Comfort ye” from the Messiah (Part One) by George Frideric Handel

For over two hundred and fifty years these words have been sung. We are familiar with the overarching narrative and the celebratory peaks that come with it. But it starts with “comfort ye”, and “speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem”. Noël Bisson notes in his listening guide how the ‘slow moving strings’ that introduce and precede these words ‘immediately create an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity’ for the entry of the solo tenor. In a way it is another version of the signal given in the fanfare above: “pay attention,” “give us your ears,” but here not through command but soft entreaty. Matthew Henry, in his 1706 commentary on the biblical text, writes: ‘Comfort you, comfort you —not because the prophets are unwilling to do it (no, it is the most pleasant part of their work), but because sometimes the souls of God’s people refuse to be comforted, and their comforters must repeat things again and again, ere they can fasten any thing upon them.’

3. ‘Humming Chorus’ from Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini

This piece could not be more unlike the sound I tend to associate with opera. There are no words, there is no exaggerated vibrato, and no obvious excitement. But the melody, and its delivery, still seems to tell a story. Kate Hopkins comments, on behalf of the Royal Opera House, that ‘the melody and its repetitive, lulling accompaniment are as simple as a lullaby.’ Perhaps this is what a lullaby for adults might sound like. In an account by Los Angeles Opera, the origins of the chorus are explained: Puccini had been entranced by an uncharacteristically long moment of silence featured in a dramatic production of Madame Butterfly. Butterfly, a Japanese geisha, has been abandoned by her American naval officer husband, Pinkerton, but now holds an overnight vigil, awaiting his return. There is an optimism here that is soon to be shattered by the arrival of Pinkerton and his new wife. Optimism is often beautiful in its frailty. And yet it survives, too, in so many different forms, as this piece I think illustrates. 

4. ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams

In her article on the work, Vanessa Thorpe reports that it actually dates from the day Britain entered the First World War, when Vaughan Williams was holidaying on the coast, and walking the cliffs. There’s a great sense of space in the music, I think, which feels good for us at this time. But there is fullness too in the accompaniment that the orchestra provides to the violin. We are not on a lone journey here, but a part of the world that we observe. Prior to the walk, Vaughan Williams was inspired also by the poem of the same name written by George Meredith (published in 1881). It is a long one, but the lines below were among those included on Vaughan Williams’ manuscript:

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes;

5. ‘My Life Flows On’ (How Can I Keep From Singing)

This is a nineteenth-century hymn, and the version by Audrey Assad (which I like) retains the Christian framework, but others also have adapted a few of the lines to their own taste, in adaptations that span the genres of folk, blues and Celtic music. I find it encouraging that the song has this versatility which enables people of different persuasions to find life in it. But there is a reason why I include a hymn here and I suppose there are two things that I like about this traditional form. One is that, as is the case with the Psalms, hymn writers never seem to forget that life has its trouble, and in fact that this is often why we need to sing. I find the acknowledgement in this form often feels honest without being depressing. The second thing though which I really like is how a hymn provides a structure to belief (even in its very straight, regular rhythms) and how on some level it doesn’t matter whether I feel able to subscribe in that moment to it or not. Presumably people with much stronger faith would be disappointed with me here. But I just love how the song carries on regardless. A song can leave me with my feeble and perplexed brain gloriously behind, and I get to listen in. Wonderful. I hope that’s what heaven sounds like. 

6. ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude’, from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses by Franz Liszt

I wanted some piano music for my list, but not something that I was already so familiar with that I knew what to expect from it. This piece is much longer than the others I’ve noted, so there is some opportunity for further listening than I would normally be doing. It references a two-volume collection of poems by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), and in both the poetry and the music there is an attempt to point towards a divine presence in all creation. But in a quote from Lamartine which prefaces Liszt’s work, there is also a reflection on how we experience time when our sense of the world is in flux: 

When barely on my brow a few days have slipped by,
It seems that a century and a world have passed;
And that, separated from them by a great abyss, 
A new man is born again within me and starts anew. 

7. Theme from The Mission (1986), including ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’, by Ennio Morricone 

(recommended recording: conducted by Morricone himself)

The music here lifts even whilst it expresses a kind of beauty that is allied to pain. It’s one of the most emotionally intense pieces in this list. And yet it is ok if we are not quite sure exactly what is being expressed. Writing for ABC (in Australia), Dan Golding reviews the narrative of the original film and the place of the score within it, but at the same time suggests that the music has taken on such a life of its own that it can be taken on its own terms as quite distinct from it. He acknowledges that you might well not know the story behind the score: ‘For many, there is simply no association to dwell on while listening.’ I don’t think, in this case, that this is a cop out. 

8. ‘Stay Alive’ by José González

(for the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)

In an interview for Vogue, Gillian Sagansky asked: ‘Would you describe your sound as more melancholic or hopeful?’ González: ‘I know I’m producing music on the borderline between those two emotions, and I always try to have a hopeful twist underneath. I know a lot of people think my sound is melancholic. Towards the end of the song I always want to convey a sense of hopefulness or at least anger underneath the melancholy. It’s hopelessness that I’m trying to avoid.’

So much of this song speaks to me of depression. I find it a most comforting companion piece. Sometimes we need to stay muted, but to know that there is also a rhythm persisting in the background, and that there will come a point when we’ll feel able to meet it. Stay alive, friends.

9. ‘Deep Peace of the Running Wave’, / A Gaelic Blessing by John Rutter

(recommended recording: by the Cambridge Singers with the City of London Sinfonia)

Anything by John Rutter is a treat. But ‘peace’ is I suppose what is most needed. And yet whilst I like that repeated refrain in this piece, I do have a funny relationship with the words here which almost seem to mean less the more the music takes over. It starts with a kind of groundedness though: those unchanging characteristics of the ‘running wave’ and ‘flowing air’ which manage to withstand the forces of human turmoil and invite us, in turn, to stand still. 

10. ‘Over the Rainbow’, for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz

Lyricist Yip Harburg said that when he was trying to write the song, he had in mind a little girl who “had never seen anything colorful in her life except the rainbow.” That is what the song stands for, I think: a reminder of the thing that seems out of reach except that we have at some point managed to catch a glimpse of it. There are many well known versions of course, and some that are in frequent circulation, but just now I’m minded to turn to Frank Sinatra’s 1944 recording. It is light and misty, and good for transporting us out of where we are to quite another time, which is really what this song is all about. 

Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay 


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