I'm putting together a PianonoiseRadio program for next week entitled "Music in a Time of Plague" and in the process of looking for recordings stumbled across one I had nearly forgotten about. The piece is based on the hymn tune "Shall We Gather at the River?" and its appropriateness is suggested in the following remembrance by the author of both its text and tune (which is unusual), one Robert Lowry, as found in E. W. Long's "Illustrated History of Hymns and their Authors:"
On a very hot summer day in 1864, a pastor was seated in his parlour in Brooklyn, N. Y. It was a time when an epidemic was sweeping through the city, and draping many persons and dwellings in mourning. All around friends and acquaintances were passing away to the spirit land in large numbers. The question began to arise in the heart, with unusual emphasis, 'Shall we meet again? We are parting at the river of death, shall we meet at the river of life?" "Seating myself at the organ," says he, "simply to give vent to the pent up emotions of the heart, the words and music of the hymn began to flow out, as if by inspiration."*
The piano piece based on this hymn by my friend Marteau is simply titled "River" and I made a recording of it in late February 2016. This makes it one of the 'tumor' recordings. At the time I had a very large tumor in my chest. I felt unwell, had trouble breathing normally, and tended to cough every time I exhaled, which made it miraculous each time I was able to get through an entire take without coughing. The tumor would be discovered a week after the recording was made, after which I had the better part of a month to contemplate my own imminent mortality before receiving a much more positive diagnosis. At the time, however, I already knew something was very wrong.
It was my own personal plague, though in this case, all of my friends who were not dying around me; in fact, the lingering cough they'd had all winter had finally gone away and only mine remained. But it does lend an interesting additional layer to the recording I'll share with you next week.
The program includes pieces which were written during and about times of rampant disease, but also music of comfort as well as grief. It is a reminder that the music many use to escape life (i.e., as pleasant noises in the background to make us feel better) actually deals with the whole of life, giving voice to a variety of human expressions on a panoply of subjects, the music itself written during daily harrassments and dramas and threats to our existence.
It may be a little dark for some; I've been hearing from you folks all my life, including my favorite comment from the time we did a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (!) in which the king dies of grief at the end. A handwritten note delivered after the play said "We prefer happy endings." Using music as a way to constructively deal with negative emotions rather than suppressing them has its analogue in the real world where denial can often lead to a lot of damage. In fact, one can lead to the other, as music which dares to be negative can lead to emotional growth. That isn't really the point here, but it may be a nutritive side effect. It may also somehow contain a message of hope in dark times, of which there have been many on planet earth and of which many wise composers and authors have left us records of their experience.
*from John Julian's "A Dictionary of Hymnody" (1907) as found in Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (1993) p. 592