The role of Music in life

What role does music play in your life? Is it just commute fodder? In bygone times it was used for more than just that.

Music had many functions and purposes. In times gone by it was used to accompany religious rites or religious worship. Think of tribes drumming or singing while dancing to an unknown god in a trance, or religious blessings within dignified ceremonies (such as temple blessings). In the Western world, the majority of music was written and used for religious purposes. The Catholic church’s preference was for sung texts whose words glorified God, instead of the instrumental music played by the heathen, for whom music was used for social, non-religious entertainment. The texts of the latter songs spoke of courtship, chivalry, and other themes of love, sometimes in rather vulgar terms, or were used as political satire.

This practice of music for religious worship, social entertainment or political commentary has continued over the centuries, even though styles may have diverged or overlapped and new genres may have sprouted.

In the 1960s, folk rock – a lighter sort of rock – was a vehicle for social protest. Songs such as “Blowin’ In the Wind”, “I Ain’t Marching Any More”, and “A Change is Gonna Come” gained popularity in America because they voiced sentiments to the issues of the time such as America’s participation in the Vietnam War, and the lack of civil rights of African Americans. Closer to England, punk rock songs such as “God Save the Queen” demonstrated opposition to the monarchy.

But it is not necessarily the words to music that can serve as a form of protest. Protest need not manifest itself in the lyrics. The performance of music in itself can serve as a form of opposition. Think the words of Verdi’s Requiem Mass. The Latin text to the Mass setting has nothing that screams “protest”. But in 1942, the score was smuggled into a Nazi concentration camp in the Czech Republic and the prisoners of war, learning the music under the guidance of the former composer and conductor Rafael Shachter, continually came together to perform the music in an act of spiritual resistance, immersing themselves in the art and forgetting temporarily the harsh realities of ghetto life and deportations. For the 150 or so prisoners of war, coming together to learn the music and perform it allowed them to find the strength to cope with the loss of freedom. And even as the numbers dwindled with deportations to Auschwitz, the Requiem was performed sixteen times. “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say,” one prisoner-of-war remarked. (One wonders if they tried the revolutionary arias of Verdi or Rossini operas.)

In war-torn Yugoslavia, the ethnic struggles in Sarajevo in 1992 and the innocent killing of 22 civilians by a mortar round as they waited in a food queue prompted cellist Vedran Smailovic to play Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor for twenty-two days, one day for each member of the dead, as a silent mark of respect, in the vicinity of ruined buildings and in full defiance of the snipers with their crosshairs fixed on him. The Sarajevo String Quartet, would likewise present the city with 206 concert during the siege which lasted four years, continually uplifting the inhabitants of the city, even though the two original violinists lost their lives. It was a statement of defiance, not just to the oppresors, but a resolute stand to continue to live with dignity despite the circumstances.

The French composer Olivier Messiaen, who died in 1992, was thirty-one and a prisoner of war when he wrote his Quatuor pour la fin du temps – Quartet for the End of Time. When France fell to the Germans in 1940 he had been rounded up and deported to a German camp located some seventy miles east of Dresden, where his fellow prisoners in Stalag VIII-A included a clarinettist, Henri Akoka; a violinist, Jean le Boulaire; and a cellist, Étienne Pasquier.

Messiaen somehow managed to procure some paper and a small pencil from a sympathetic German guard and put together a work that features an unusual quartet – clarinet, violin, piano, cello – which presents challenges in blending sounds and balance. But those were the instruments at Messiaen’s disposal in the camp. Playing battered, makeshift and out-of-tune instruments outdoors in the falling rain and the snow on the ground, the musicians premiered the work on the evening of 15 January 1941 for fellow prisoners of war, which included French, German, Polish and Czech men from all strata of society, huddled together in their threadbare uniforms, on which was stitched ‘K. G.’ or ‘Kriegsgefangene’ (meaning prisoner of war) in a silent demonstration of hope against their current circumstances.

Does looking at music this context give it more life than mere mindless entertainment while on your commute?

Perhaps you can give more meaning to music in your life through learning a music instrument and making it more relevant. For piano lessons in N4, get in touch with the pianoWorks website and give your life a fresh direction.