As I write at my desk tonight, it is four days before Thanksgiving in the United States. We are about to enter the holiday season, a season that in many ways is defined by music and memories. The musicians of ICSOM will be performing music that is all too familiar to us, with countless Nutcrackers, Messiahs, and holiday arrangements we have performed hundreds if not thousands of times. While we might find that music to be fatiguing, it will bring joy to many who listen, and they will find that joy at a time when it is greatly needed for the world.
Every holiday season is at least partly about the holidays that went before. Christmas carols and other holiday music are as evocative as the decades-old Super 8 millimeter films I have of me and my brothers opening presents, as our forever young parents watch wearily and joyfully.
My favorite carol has always been “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”, which I learned as a child from the Methodist hymnal, as a setting by Gustav Holst of a poem from the 1870s. But Benjamin Britten and other composers have also set the poem to music, and as a result there are many versions of this carol. Some are very religious, and others more secular. My favorite recording might be by the American singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin.
The bleakness of the carol’s title merely describes the winter months, when “earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone” and “Snow had fallen, snow on snow, in the bleak mid-winter, long, long ago.”
This music is on my mind tonight, because as Thanksgiving approaches it is also ten days after the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, and just a few days after the attacks in Mali. From the other room I can hear the non-stop drone of television news reporting that Belgium is under the highest alert for terrorist attacks, and pundits and candidates, alternately well-meaning and self-serving, debating and arguing over what we all should be doing to respond. The violent, disheartening events of the world in this mid-winter are indeed bleak.
Our esteemed editor, Peter de Boor, sent me a blog post he had found that discussed how the world should respond. The post urged us all:
If you make music keep making it. Make more of it.
If you write, write more, publish more, speak more.
If you make or watch film, or theatre, or dance, or comedy, or any other form of performance, it’s now more important than ever.
When our hearts are broken we have to keep our minds open.
After these latest attacks on humanity, the world again turned to music and musicians responded.
Orchestras across the world dedicated their performances to the victims in France. The Metropolitan Opera performed the French national anthem “La Marseillaise”, as did the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, along with so many others. Making it easier to do so, the list-serve of the Major Orchestra Librarians Association (MOLA) sent out an immediate notice informing all their members how to access the score. And the Atlanta Symphony dedicated its performance of the Verdi Requiem to the victims in Paris.
The day after the attacks, a pianist arrived outside the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, the scene of so many deaths, and played John Lennon’s “Imagine” for the gathered grieving crowd. As Brussels went on lock-down, a cellist appeared in front of armored vehicles to play Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. To assist others in crisis, the Vienna Philharmonic launched a campaign to fund a house for asylum seekers that would give shelter to four families of refugees while providing language courses and music.
It is a troubled time for the world, but every generation has faced such a moment, and every generation has said “but this time it feels different.” It is true that the attacks being perpetrated around the world, not just in European capitals but also in Beirut, Kenya, Nigeria, and in so many other places, represent a different type of assault on humanity and culture. These attacks are killing countless people, and they are also demolishing museums and artifacts, eradicating libraries, and destroying musical instruments.
Terrorism is designed to make us afraid, and designed to make us surrender our values in response. We must not accommodate the aims of terrorists. It is easy to see only the destructive people, but even while under assault there remains more kindness in this world than misanthropy. I remember an admonition from Mister Rogers I saw many years ago. When children would see television footage of such attacks, he would advise them to “look for the helpers. There are always people helping.”
As humans and musicians, here is how we can best respond.
Seek out ways to show individual kindness to others, especially when it might not be seen or honored. This holiday season when many families are together there will be many people alone. Find ways to reach them. Volunteer to visit the elderly, who are all too often alone with the memories of the past holidays. Volunteer to serve at a soup kitchen over the holidays. Give a coat to the homeless.
The musicians of our orchestras can join together to make donations of non-perishable goods to the food banks in our cities, or to raise money among ourselves for a donation to a needed cause in our cities.
This is how to respond to terrorism.
Further this year, when it is the tenth performance of the Nutcracker and we are exhausted with the repetition, look into the audience, mindful that they are arriving after seeing terrible carnage on TV. Make it our mission to demonstrate something beautiful to them at a time when they are wondering where beauty is to be found.
Share your thoughts and experiences with your orchestra’s board members to make sure they understand their support for their orchestra is meaningful in their city, and meaningful in this world, perhaps now more than ever.
We will not be isolated, we will not be fearful, and we will not be apathetic.
When I was studying in Boston, my great teacher Lawrence Wolfe would often write messages to me on my sheet music, which would usually say “Know no fear.” As we move through this holiday season, and as we look for ways to respond to the world events, I urge us all to know no fear. We can respond with individual acts of kindness, we can respond by seeking out moments of joy and peace to share with everyone we meet, and our orchestras will respond as families, performing and welcoming the audiences who have arrived to share a moment of peace with us.
People of all religions and ideologies will be celebrating this month, and this year we must celebrate inclusiveness and acceptance together. While it can be easy to feel a sense of futility in the face of terrorism, musicians can join together inclusively and lead the way with our dedication and music, as music will always remain a force for good in our weary world.
What can I give you,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give you –
I will give my heart.
In the bleak mid-winter
Long, long ago.