By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University
Western classical music is alive and well. That might sound odd to say, considering classical music in 2018 accounted for about 1% of the total album sales in the United States (compared to 21.7% for hip-hop/rap, 20.1% for pop, and 14% for rock and roll). But classical music as an art form is thriving and is even experiencing a small resurgence.
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Classical music has been a viable form of musical expression for over 600 years, if you start somewhere around 1400 with early Renaissance music. Since then, it has been the most important form of musical expression found in European-influenced culture. Throughout the years, composers have poured their time, efforts, and emotions into their music that has entertained, lifted us emotionally, and edified us.
In an article from The Independent, Requiem for an art form: Why modern composers are fighting a losing battle, Jessica Duchen discusses how some of the great music was written in response to great conflicts and wars. Duchen observes that in the 21st century, there have not been any great works that have tackled the conflicts of the new century. She asks, “Should there not still be a role for classical music here? Where are the war requiems for the early 21st century?”
Does War Equal Great Music?
If a composer writes music that is inspired by a war that she or he has lived through, will this music be of great quality and communicate emotion and meaning? Yes, well, sometimes. It is complicated.
Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev both lived in Russia during World War II and experienced the hardships and horrors firsthand. Prokofiev witnessed both world wars.
Although Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 was acclaimed by many people at the time, some well-known composers such as Virgil Thomas, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Bela Bartok did not take the symphony seriously. They basically called it simple Soviet propaganda.
Shostakovich’s symphonies No. 8 and No. 9 were also composed during the war, but his Symphony No. 13, which premiered in 1962, might be one of his most poignant. Symphony No. 13, called “Babi Yari,” partially tells the story of the Jewish massacre at Babi Yari in 1941.
“Babi Yari” is a mammoth symphony that lasts over an hour, has a bass soloist and a male chorus, and uses large symphonic forces. Shostakovich’s work is more like a requiem about World War II than any of his other works.
Prokofiev’s War Sonatas, although important works, are not in the same realm as a requiem or symphony; they are extremely personal in nature. Other examples of works Prokofiev composed in reaction to the war are his symphonies No. 5 and No. 6. Symphony No. 5 expresses the joy of victory over Nazi Germany, and No. 6 expresses the sad reflection of all that was lost.
As Prokovfiev told his biographer, “Now we are rejoicing in our great victory, but each of us has wounds which cannot be healed. One man’s loved ones have perished, another has lost his health. This must not be forgotten.”
The Compositions of Benjamin Britten and Arnold Schoenberg
Benjamin Britten, the most famous and accomplished English composer since Thomas Tallis in the early 16th century (besides Vaughn Williams), did not actively participate in World War II. He lived part of the war in the U.S. and the remainder in the English countryside.
Like Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, Britten’s “War Requiem” premiered in 1962; it requires large numbers to perform, including soloists, boys choruses, an organ and a very large orchestra. It uses a variety of texts including traditional texts from the Catholic requiem and poetry by Wilfred Owen, an English poet killed in World War I.
Britten’s work is what I believe Duchen is imagining when she talks about writing music to communicate the horrors of war. The music is serious, long, emotional, dissonant, and beautiful, and it combines instrumental, vocal, and choral elements. It is a tour de force.
In addition to the works of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Britten, I must mention Schoenberg. Arnold Schoenberg lived in California during the war after being forced out of Germany in the early 1930s because of his Jewish heritage and his music.
Even though he was born in Austria and was one of the most famous composers of the day, his “radical” music did not fit the Nazi concept of acceptable (Aryan) classical music. So like his fellow German Paul Hindemith, Schoenberg was forced to move to the United States.
After the war, Schoenberg wanted to write a work that somehow depicted the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto. The Koussevitzky Foundation commissioned him to write “A Survivor from Warsaw.” Although the words in the piece are not historically accurate, the power of the work is easily heard with the bass narrator, the orchestra and the chorus. This work is emotionally fraught with its use of Schoenberg’s 12-tone music (dodecaphonic style), a harrowing text and the use of a chorus.
“A Survivor from Warsaw” is unlike any other contemporaneous music. As Amy Wlodaski, an associate professor of music at Dickinson College, writes: “Schoenberg’s music provides a ‘soundtrack’ to these psychological events that includes both literal illustration and more abstract representations of traumatic memory.”
The Requiem as a Genre Is the Catholic Mass for the Dead
All of these great works were inspired by World War II and to a point, World War I. These two wars were the costliest in human history.
When you add the purges in Russia, the Holocaust, and the atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese before and during World War II, the cost in human life is unimaginable. It makes sense that the generation that lived through these wars was severely affected by these experiences, even if they did not experience them firsthand.
In addition, the requiem as a genre is the Catholic mass for the dead. There is a long history of requiems written by the most important composers in classical music history. These requiems were often written because a local church wanted a new requiem, someone important had died, or like Mozart, the requiem was a commission.
For other components, a requiem was just something to write. Organist Gabriel Faure came from a Catholic family. Of his famous “Messe de Requiem,” he said, “My Requiem wasn’t written for anything…for pleasure, if I may call it that!”
Who Will Write the Next Great Requiem?
Duchen posits: “But we have yet to hear any high-profile classical work that really tackles the human cost of the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan.” Now to be fair, her article was written in 2011. So the century was only a decade old and focusing on these two still ongoing conflicts seems somewhat limiting (not to downplay the tragedy of both).
To write great art inspired by war, you do not have to have directly experienced that conflict. But the few examples in Duchen’s article such as Steve Reich’s “WTC 9/11,” Peter Maxwell Davies’s String Quartet No. 3 or Richard Barrett’s “Mesopotamia” are more in the vein of Prokofiev’s War Sonatas. They are great works, but on a smaller scale.
With that said, who is going to write the next great requiem? Maybe an Iraqi or an Afghan will write a requiem for the hardships their countries have and are still going through. Maybe a Syrian will write a work inspired by the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.
Maybe an African will write a work for the terrible conflicts that have been in different parts of Africa ever since colonialism ended. Maybe an American will write a requiem for the opioid crisis that has devastated so many lives.
Maybe a Mexican will write a requiem about the horrors of the Mexican drug war. Maybe a Honduran, Guatemalan or Salvadoran will write a requiem about the violence that has fragmented their countries for so long.
Maybe someone who lived through one of the many horrible conflicts of the last two decades — perhaps a requiem to the thousands of deaths from the novel coronavirus pandemic — will write a requiem. They could add their own cultural elements to the requiem genre to make something that is new and poignant, to help people reflect on those we have lost.
About the Author
Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an MBA. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about music, information literacy, and how the humanities contribute to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.
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