Classical Music Inspired by 9/11

When tragedy strikes, we often turn to each other and lean into things that are meaningful—that give us emotional strength, depth, and significance. It’s on this somber day that we honor the 3,000 lives lost in the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and we honor the courage of the brave individuals who put themselves in harm’s way to save people they never knew.

Music has magical, healing powers and from this horrendous tragedy came some incredible music written in tribute. Below are three inspirational pieces written by composers who were in NY when the attacks happened—and as Victor Hugo so astutely said, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words.”  

Spared
Howard Goodall, composer

“On 11th September 2001, I was in New York filming for my series Howard Goodall’s Great Dates, walking down 5th Avenue to meet the crew at an arranged rendezvous in Battery Park. I had come parallel to Washington Square when, with my disbelieving eyes (and those of the millions who witnessed it on TV news reports) I watched the catastrophe of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center at firsthand. I stood in the street as the second tower collapsed in front of me and as the tidal wave of dust rushed towards and through me. I tried (and failed) to contact my family in London (Manhattan’s phone masts had come down with the twin towers) to tell them I was safe and alive. It was a further agonizing three hours before calls to the UK were possible. We were cut off from the world in central Manhattan, the island sealed by the FBI and all flights grounded, unable to return home for nearly a week, woken nightly and noisily evacuated onto the street in a series of (understandably) jittery false bomb alarms. That day changed all of our lives, and I knew one day I would want to compose something to come to terms with my feelings about being witness to its catastrophic events.” Howard Goodall, in an interview with Classic FM


A Hymn for the Lost and the Living
Eric Ewazen, composer

“On September 11, 2001, I was teaching my music theory class at the Juilliard School when we were notified of the catastrophe that was occurring several miles south of us in Manhattan. Gathering around a radio in the school’s library, we heard the events unfold in shock and disbelief. Afterwards, walking up Broadway on the sun-filled day, the street was full of silent people, all quickly heading to their homes. During the next several days, our great city became a landscape of empty streets and impromptu, heartbreaking memorials mourning our lost citizens, friends and family. But then on Friday, a few days later, the city seemed to have been transformed. On this evening, walking up Broadway, I saw multitudes of people holding candles, singing songs, and gathering in front of those memorials, paying tribute to the lost, becoming a community of citizens of this city, of this country and of this world, leaning on each other for strength and support. A Hymn for the Lost and the Living portrays those painful days following September 11th, days of supreme sadness. It is intended to be a memorial for those lost souls, gone from this life, but who are forever treasured in our memories.” Eric Ewazen

A Hymn for the Lost and the Living was commissioned by and is dedicated to the US Air Force Heritage of America Band, Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, Major Larry H. Lang, Director.


The Sad Park, composed for the Kronos Quartet

Michael Gordon, composer

[excerpts from NPR: Sept. 11 In Children’s Voices: Michael Gordon’s ‘The Sad Park’]

Michael Gordon, one of the co-founders of the new music collective Bang on a Can, [wrote] a September 11 piece, The Sad Park. He found inspiration amid an unlikely group of commentators—the 3- and 4-year-olds who attended a Lower Manhattan preschool with his son after September 11.

“The children would be sitting around doing what they normally do, and then all of a sudden one of them would burst out something about 9/11, and the others would start talking,” Gordon says. “They were in there building things. I remember I would walk in and they would have rebuilt the twin towers.”

When Gordon learned his son’s teacher had been taping the children’s comments, he was fascinated. Gordon made a digital copy of one of the cassettes, and proceeded to let it sit on his desk for several years. He says, “I used to look at it, and I was like, ‘What am I going to do with this?'” Gradually, Gordon found that the short, song-like phrases of the preschoolers packed immense power and emotion. And that’s when music started to take shape in his head—he would manipulate the children’s voices and incorporate them into a piece for the Kronos Quartet.

Gordon also found inspiration in what happened to him and his family that sunny September 11 morning. After walking his daughter to kindergarten at P.S. 234, two blocks north of the World Trade Center, he was startled by a jet. He recalls, “I was just hanging out in the courtyard of the school with the other parents, and basically looked up and saw this very low-flying plane. And then, boom. Someone yells out, ‘The plane just hit the tower.’ I walked into my daughter’s class, told the teacher and picked up my daughter, and we left and walked north up Greenwich Street to our house.”

Gordon says that as the composer, he needed to just disappear when it came to composing The Sad Park. He wanted to let the emotion of the children’s voices have room to breathe. He also didn’t want the music to embody any big, universal statement.

“It’s not political,” Gordon says. “This actually happened to me and my family and my child, and this in a sense was just trying to grab on to a tiny bit of that moment and leave it as a document.”