Riding out the COVID-19 pandemic in her Manhattan home, just across the street from a major hospital, composer Lisa Bielawa wanted to find a way to be productive and to connect with fellow musicians and the public.
“A lot of other projects have vanished or been postponed indefinitely,” said Bielawa, a winner of the Rome Prize in musical composition. “It left me with a hole emotionally, in my connection not just with the work but also with people through the work. I needed to find a way to reach out.”
The result is Broadcast From Home, which is meant to commemorate the challenges and sacrifices that have marked this extraordinary time and to involve the public as the shutdown plays out. It continues a series of community-based projects that have marked Bielawa’s work in recent years.
Rather than simply sit down and write a piece of music, Bielawa, with the help of archivist Claire Solomon, has sought “testimonies” from anyone who cares to submit them, online commentaries about what life in this pandemic has been like. So far, she has received 60 submissions representing four continents.
As the texts are collected, she builds what she calls “micro-melodies” around them and she then posts “guide tracks,” with either her or a friend singing these musical building blocks. Members of the public are asked to sing along with the tracks and then upload recordings of themselves.
Bielawa crafts weekly “chapters” of Broadcast From Home, in which she incorporates these recordings into the musical composition. “I’m having everyone generate building blocks,” she said. “It’s very intuitive way of creating a work, but for me it’s actually emotionally so incredibly right.”
As of May 14, Bielawa had created six chapters, and she will continue indefinitely, adding one a week. To see the progress of the project or to contribute to it, visit lisabielawa.net/broadcast-from-home.
Bielawa is far from the first composer to respond to a pandemic or epidemic. Some from centuries past have been stricken by disease or have had to overcome the financial or societal repercussions resulting the outbreaks of deadly illnesses. Here is a look at nine such composers:
John Cooke, Stella celi extirpavit, before 1420: The Plague or the Black Death, as it came to be known, reached its peak in the mid-14th century and killed tens of millions of people. One of the best-known works that dealt with this awful contagion was a 15th-century Marian hymn known as the Stella celi extirpavit, a prayer for healing from what one stanza describes as the “plague of death.” In an essay for the journal Early Music History, Christopher Macklin writes that the earliest known appearance of the hymn — some time before 1420 — is its use as underlay of a three-voice descant motet attributed to John Cooke in the Old Hall Manuscript.
Nicholas Lanier, a contributor to Ben Jonson’s masque, Lovers Made Men, 1617: The Great Plague of London, which hit in 1665-66, was the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in England. It is not clear that Lanier died of the disease, but it seems likely, given his demise in February 1666. Lanier, a lutenist, singer and composer, served under Charles I and II and was the first person to hold the title of Master of the King’s Music. This jack of many of trades also was a painter and connoisseur of art, helping Charles I with the purchase of the collection of the Duke of Mantua. Famed artist Anthony van Dyck created a portrait of Lanier around 1628 — an indication of his importance.
Veljo Tormis, Katkuaja mälestus (Plague Memory), 1974: Written as a tribute to the three conductors to that point of the Estonian National Male Choir, the choral work uses a text compiled by Estonian poet Jaan Kaplinski. Drawing on a folk legend about a group of women who try to ward off the plague by partially submerging themselves in the sea, the composer relates it to Estonia’s then-plight under the domination of the Soviet Union. “This song is a memory of the plague, but actually we are currently suffering under this illness, the red plague,” Tormis said in an interview with Michael Hanawalt, who wrote about the piece in his 2012 doctoral dissertation at Florida State University.
Igor Stravinsky, L’histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), 1918: This hybrid work, which features a septet, three actors and one or more dancers, debuted in September 1918 during the deadly outbreak of Spanish flu that was ravaging the world. Stravinsky deliberately limited the number of performers so that he could tour the work economically, but his plans were thwarted. Because of the pandemic, all the bookings were canceled, and it was not staged again until its English premiere at Newcastle upon Tyne in 1926. First CSO performances, April 17-21, 2002, conducted by William Eddins. Most recent, Feb. 25 and 28, 2012, conducted by Cristian Măcelaru.
Sergei Prokofiev, The Love for Three Oranges, 1919: After a long trip from Russia that included a stop in Chicago, Prokofiev arrived in New York City on Sept. 6, 1918, eager to establish his reputation there. But his timing could hardly have been worse. The city’s concert season was postponed because of the Spanish flu, and the composer wound up spending two years in the United States. “To fly from the Bolsheviks to die from Spanish flu!” he lamented in his diary. Later that month, Frederick Stock, music director of the Chicago Symphony, met with Prokofiev and agreed to December performances of two of his works, including the composer leading his Scythian Suite. As a result of those successful American premieres, the Chicago Opera Association commissioned The Love for Three Oranges, which premiered Dec. 30, 1921, at the Auditorium Theatre under Prokofiev’s baton. First CSO performance: Feb. 6, 1954, the work’s March, conducted by George Schick. Most recent: Oct. 5-7, Suite, conducted by Alain Altinoglu.
Bela Bartók, The Miraculous Mandarin, 1917-1919/orchestration 1923: According to a 1981 article in a Hungarian musicological journal, Bartók caught the Spanish flu on Oct. 8, 1918, and he was in bed for 23 days. He had a hard time speaking, so he was forced to write notes to his wife. In one, he wrote of “stabbing pains” and the sensation of “small ants scratching” in his ears. By the end of the year, he was finally healthy. Around this same time, he began composing this once-scandalous one-act ballet, which he had started sketching the year before. First CSO performances: Dec. 9-10, Suite, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. Most recent: April 3, 5 and 8, Suite, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Joaquín Rodrigo, Concierto de Aranjuez, 1939: Born in 1901, Rodrigo lost his sight at age 3 because of diphtheria, a pernicious disease that was largely eradicated in the 1920s. Undeterred by his blindness, he began studies of the piano and violin at age 8 and went on to become a renowned composer, writing his compositions in Braille. He is best known for his guitar concerto, which has long reigned as the most frequently performed such work for the instrument. First CSO performance: Oct. 23, 1965, Narciso Yepes, guitar, Irwin Hoffman, conductor. Most recent: May 23-26, 2019, Pablo Sainz Villegas, guitar, Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor.
Henryk Górecki, Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), 1976: This work, in which a solo soprano sings Polish texts in each of the three movements, languished in near obscurity. But it gained instant fame in 1992 when Nonesuch released a recording of the piece featuring conductor David Zinman, soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta. To date, it has sold more than 1 million copies. Although the work predated the AIDS epidemic, it was featured in 1996 as part of an AIDS memorial at St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha, Neb., with conductor William Jenks leading an ensemble composed of musicians from several local orchestras, including the Omaha Symphony. “Grieving friends and relatives of people who had died from AIDS lit candles, and the music was so appropriate, so moving. It’s a concert I won’t forget,” Laurie Niles wrote in a blogpost on her website, violinist.com.
John Corigliano, Symphony No. 1, 1988-89: Written while Corigliano was the CSO’s composer-in-residence, his first work in this form was meant as an AIDs memorial. Inspired in part by the AIDS Memorial Quilt project, Corigliano wrote in the program notes that he wanted to commemorate “those I have lost, and reflect on those I am losing.” Then-music director designate Daniel Barenboim and the CSO premiered the symphony on March 15, 1990 (with additional performances on March 16-17). New Yorker music critic Alex Ross wrote in 2019 that “it remains the most formidable classical work written in response to the epidemic.” The live recording of the premiere performances on the Erato label won two 1991 Grammy Awards for Best Orchestral Performance and Best Contemporary Composition.
TOP: An illustration depicting Carlo Gozzi’s 18th-century comedy “The Love of Three Oranges,” which Prokofiev drew on for the French-Russian libretto of his opera. | Wikimedia