COVID-19 is not the first pandemic the world has ever seen. Throughout history, people have dealt with pandemics, but still, composers carried on.
In 1720, Marseille, France endured the last major outbreak of the bubonic plaque in Western Europe. The year after the plague ended, Bach wrote Cantata No. 25—”There is Nothing Healthy in My Body”—in response to that terrible event. Although outwardly a spiritual and uplifting work, the text of the Cantata is rife with imagery of fevers, illness and “the world as a hospital.” The poignant bass aria, “Ah, where in my wretchedness may I find counsel,” pleads to the Lord for healing. Listen to this stirring piece below:
Stravinsky was in Switzerland when World War I began. There was no way for him to return home to Russia. He knew he needed to make money while he was stranded so he composed “L’histoire du soldat”—”The Soldier’s Tale.” (Check out this chamber version, linked below.) The composition, which included a theatrical production, showed much promise during its premiere in Lausanne on September 28, 1918, but quickly ground to a halt when the Spanish Influenza reached Switzerland. First, it affected the production crew, then it got Stravinsky, who already had health problems. After a long bout with influenza, he recovered. Nevertheless, he was running out of funds in Switzerland, and performing for large audiences was almost entirely out of the question. So, over the next year, he altered old music and wrote other pieces for a smaller orchestra and audience. During this time he composed “Ragtime,” a divergent take on ragtime jazz, and the “Firebird Suite,” a rework of the “Firebird” ballet in suite form.
Another famous Russian composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff fled the Bolshevik revolution and arrived in New Jersey on November 10, 1918. Just a few days later, the composer fell ill with the Spanish influenza. Rachmaninoff quickly recovered, and, even though he’d been advised to rest for a little longer, he embarked on an American tour. He wrote his own arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a show of gratitude toward his new country. And it became a showpiece for his inaugural American tour.
Hear Rachmaninoff performing his version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” below:
Other more recent compositions include John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 often referred to as the “AIDS Symphony” (also linked below). In interviews, Corigliano talks about the responsibility he felt to tell the stories of his many friends who died from the disease, and also the anger and frustration he felt in being powerless to help. The moving symphony premiered in 1990 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and won the Grawemeyer Award the next year.
This isn’t the first pandemic and it won’t be the last. What is known, however, is that we will always have music to help up make sense of it all. That is why it has been so universal throughout human history. Art and music find their power in speaking to the circumstances that occur in our lives, especially the ones that don’t make sense. Because everyone in the world has in some way been impacted by COVID-19, it is safe to be optimistic that composers will continue to find a way to express in music, those emotions that words cannot convey.