Making music at a time of tragedy

A personal reflection in the form of a concert review.

By Peter Alexander

12239638_10153709043612365_7450372887197993418_nLast night, the Boulder Philharmonic played a concert.

They played music by Brahms and Charles Denler, the last accompanied by photographs by John Fielder. That was what was on the program, but before the announced program began, they also played the “Nimrod” variation from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations as a moment of solace for all of us who were feeling battered by the fierce winds blowing across our world, and as a moment of tribute to those suffering after the atrocities in Paris.

And presumably, since Paris was not even mentioned, for others around the world who are suffering in these terrible times—in Lebanon, in Syria, across Europe, in Africa, and in our own country.

One of the most beautiful four minutes of music I know, “Nimrod” is as fine an offering of solace as musicians could make. It was followed by a long period of silence, as conductor Michael Butterman and members of the orchestra held their positions from the final note. And after a smattering of applause—I will take it as an expression of gratitude for the gesture, rather than anything so routine as reward for the performance—Butterman spoke some touching and very appropriate words about how we all are feeling today.

As one of those affected by the events of the past 36 hours, the past week, the past year, I was both thankful for the opportunity to hear music lovingly played, and aware what a tiny thing a concert is in the world we now live in. Sometimes, just getting on with life is the best thing that we can do—literally the best of many choices. In that respect, the people of Paris may be an example for us all. But sometimes, too, it feels insufficient.

While “Nimrod” was sounding, the familiar words of Leonard Bernstein were projected above the orchestra: ““This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

Sadly, these words are familiar because they seem to be quoted more and more often in these times. They are beautiful, but at some point, they are no longer enough. We will either find a way to get beyond the expression of our ideals and find a way to make a world that will accept difference, one that will make room for all of the world’s children—those of any God you prefer—or this grand experiment of human culture and civilization will come to an end.

It was a meaningful coincidence that the program opened with Brahms’s Schicksalslied (Song of destiny), performed by the orchestra with the Boulder Chorale in celebration of the group’s 50th anniversary. A setting of a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, the work contrasts the peace of Elysium with human life, where we suffer the batterings of forces we cannot control. The central choral section, essentially a musical depiction of life in a world of chaos, is followed by music that seems to offer comfort and hope.

It turns out Boulder Phil could not have selected a better message for Nov. 14, 2015.

After a satisfying and meaningful performance of Brahms, Butterman and the orchestra turned their attention to music that strives for the same peace that Brahms suggests at the end of the Schicksalslied. The concert premiere of Denler’s Portraits in Season offered meditative music for piano supported and gently amplified by the orchestra. With the composer playing the solo piano part, the performance created a fitting mood of calm and contemplation.

Denler explained before the performance that the piece was not really about the seasons, but about the passages of life and the pleasure that one can find from growing older. This too seemed to fit the mood of the first half of the concert. The beautiful photography of John Fielder projected above the orchestra, and the quotes from Henry David Thoreau that appeared on some slides, added greatly to the pleasure of the occasion, and provided still more food for reflection.

The concert concluded with a mostly satisfying performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony. Here the key of D major casts a layer of light and serenity over the entire work. The audience responded with warmth.


Candles and flowers outside La Belle Equipe restaurant in Paris, Nov. 14, 2015.

Leaving the concert hall, one re-enters a world that is not as safe or well ordered as a Brahms symphony. On a personal note, I was all the more thoughtful about humanity’s capacity for inflicting horror because just the day before—near the same time as the attacks in Paris—I happened to visit the site of one of the worst tragedies in our own country’s history: the Sand Creek Massacre by U.S. volunteers of Cheyenne and Arapahoe women, children, and men who were flying the stars and stripes and a white flag.

Suffering, it seems, is ageless. So as we enjoy the best fruits that human culture has to offer, whether it be in the music of Johannes Brahms and Charles Denler, or the photos of John Fielder, or whatever art, music and literature you may enjoy in the coming weeks, we should all take the time to reflect on how precious and fragile is the world we imagine that we live in. If we fail to do so, we may pay a terrible price.


Lightly edited for clarity Nov. 15, 2015.


5 thoughts on “Making music at a time of tragedy

  1. Thanks for this, Peter — very much appreciated. I had related thoughts at the AMS meeting last weekend: one of the things that came to mind late Friday as I heard the horrific news was the musicological congress in 1939: New York, September 1-9. Imagine what they were thinking as the catastrophic events of Europe played out that week, while they presented their musicological research (some of them knowing they could not return to Europe). But they did the right thing, the important thing, by carrying on with scholarship and research in spite of the world’s calamitous state.

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