It's all about pathos
Does a composer write his or her best music at a time of joy, tragedy or tranquillity? There are persuasive cases to be made for all three.
Indeed we should probably add a fourth option i.e. none of the above as there are plenty of composers who seemed able to turn out wonderful music on a daily basis, irrespective of the circumstances. One need look no further than Josef Haydn’s 100+ symphonies, JS Bach’s 200+ cantatas, or Domenico Scarlatti’s 500+ keyboard sonatas.
Joy and love have been the inspiration of much great music. Leos Janacek wrote his striking second quartet, subtitled “Listy důvěrné“ (or “Intimate Letters”, if your Czech is off the pace) at the age of 74, to express the depth of his feelings for the much younger Kamila Stösslová; and much of Robert Schumann’s music from the mid 1830s (both for voice and piano) was inspired by Clara Wieck, who was to become his wife (despite the best efforts of her father).
Several composers sought out the tranquillity of country retreats in order to write more effectively. For some British composers in the early and mid 20th Century (e.g. Elgar, Gurney, Finzi) the geography almost became synonymous with the sound, as they developed a sparse, reflective orchestral style so evocative of rural life.
However, it’s the interface between sadness and music which is the main theme of this article. We should perhaps not be surprised that one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous symphonies and one of Beethoven’s most famous piano sonatas both became known as Pathétique (somehow the French word sounds more convincing than the English word ‘pathetic’).
A colleague shared with me the following poem by Bertolt Brecht, from Poems 1913-1956.
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.
I must confess I hadn’t been aware of Brecht’s poetry; he is best known in musical circles for his collaborations with Kurt Weill which led, for example, to The Threepenny Opera (1928) and Mack The Knife. However, despite living through far more violent and tragic times than we will hopefully face (even taking the Comprehensive Spending Review into account …), Brecht is most emphatic in this brief poem that there will be singing about the dark times. I have put the word about in italics as I notice the original question is about singing in the dark times. Is his point that we are more likely to sing at the recollection of dark times than whilst we are in the middle of them? I’m not sure about that.
Whilst a specific incident of sadness or tragedy may often be the prompt for the composer, it can also be the stimulus for the listener. When a family member was diagnosed with cancer recently I found myself instinctively wanting to share music with her – music which seemed to be able to express feelings in a much more effective way than words. One of the tracks I turned to was a blues number (Need Your Love So Bad) by the early Fleetwood Mac – not for the specific meaning of the words but for the pathos of the guitar solo by Peter Green. Incidentally if you share my sense of frustration with the version released as the British single, where the record is faded out in mid solo, I can thoroughly recommend the longer take on the American version, although even this still has the irritating overdubbed strings!
Yes, there will be singing in the dark times, whether through the community of the choir, the directness of the folk song or the yearning of the blues.