In Celebration of Music
Terry H. Schwadron
Sept. 20, 2022
Amid the flood of florid words and posh images of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, what struck most was the role afforded to music at these grand moments, especially those that require bridging cultures and languages.
I’ll leave the questions of anachronistic monarchy and what to make of Britain’s forced retreat from colonialism to others. For me, it was the live music that raised these events beyond solemnity into something more, whether history or serious celebration.
One need not be part of the Church of England to be moved by the soaring choir voices that filled Westminster Abbey, one could not miss the stirring pageantry of the long trumpets that sent the royal coffin on its way nor react to the glory of that church’s resonant organ, feel instant mournfulness of the bagpipe dirge or recognize a sense of reassurance offered by the steady cadence of the military bands’ procession.
It seemed that all wanted to join in traditional singing of an updated “God Save the King” to mark the notably peaceful transfer of royalty to Charles.
Thankfully, when there is music, the talking heads stop telling me what I can hear or see.
There was plenty of non-musical pomp, of course. As we were told endlessly, hordes of Britishers were choreographed and rehearsed in everything from uniform adornments to flower choices to the timed gong of Big Ben. Clearly, the streets were crowded in quiet respect and billions watched on television.
Yet, through it all, it was the sounds — even the moments of silence — that spoke the loudest about belonging, about being part of the historic moment, about hope and humanness.
Music for Big Events
Away from this royal funeral and the traditions of church hymns, we recognize similar glory for sound only at presidential inaugurations, the Olympics, big protest marches and other big, formal gatherings. New Orleans made second line marches for funerals into events.
However varied the causes and cultural prompts, the music at these times is not just a device to give waiting hordes something to do or meant at events like political rallies to amp up crowd reactions.
Rather, there is something unique and beyond words that music, whether through anthems, hymns, or protest songs, can provide a way to identify and unify in the meaning of the moment. The music speaks its own emotions, stirs its own feelings.
All the world’s religions have long recognized a role for live music or sound, and for a couple centuries it was the Church or royalty that underwrote European writing and performance of music. Religious and folk rites maintained the chants, song and the sound of shofar rams’ horns present. The solemn muzzein remains the verbal signal to Muslims to come to prayer.
Groups like the Salvation Army and the Moravian Church adopted brass music playing as ways for congregants to participate in efforts to glorify, and over decades, British towns and villages adopted brass bands and local choirs as relief from working the coal mines.
Last week, we heard a final performance of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington as a tribute to bravery in the face of Russian incursion. And at the Donald Trump rally in Ohio over the weekend, much was being made of the use of a QAnon-sponsored melody as the musical setting for a dark Trump campaign speech.
Make It Daily
For me, pursuing music has been of equal attention to career — not just in the background but as a specific engaged activity for exploring composed music meant for audience. My father was a musician and teacher, my brother too, my wife a dancer, our children all found work in the arts and see it as central to understanding the world.
Just this weekend, three friends joined me for trombone quartets in the apartment living room, a chance to be together for an afternoon after a summer break — and an opportunity to hopscotch among pieces written over four centuries. The sound is a uniquely organ-like blend and our silent communal discussion to produce it together is beyond rewarding. It was fun and all left smiling, as did the neighbors who passed by.
There are similar feelings when my jazz sextet performs or works out a new tune or harmonization or when the low brass has a particularly engaging rehearsal with one of the local orchestras. It is the stuff of satisfaction, self-validation and worth in non-verbal communication with others. You might as well ask why a hug feels good.
Much the same is true of live dance and movement or in the pursuit of a visual art form or image, in the sharing of a poem as verbal portrait.
Yet live music, particularly from different cultures and languages, and a more general respect for the arts and arts education is increasingly at risk.
What I can’t help but conclude is that we want the majesty of the arts in our Big Events, but we forget that they can be more a part of our daily lives, and certainly part of what we teach our children. Why is it so difficult to recognize that music, art and dance should be integral to our education systems, and that our hurtle towards vocation-skill-oriented curricula should exclude the most human ways of learning? Haven’t we long since established connections between music and mathematics, art and design with special understanding, movement as an expression of identity exploration? Why are certain political parties single-focused on building literal walls, while blithely cutting away all spending towards cultural arts? Why do we recognize the need to invest in manufacturing jobs alternately for coal miners or solar panel chip makers while ignoring the noticeable segment of cultural work?
What the current vogues — like insisting on teaching only towards standardized tests on the one hand and the mania about throwing out books because they might offend on the other — miss is that there is inherent value in music and art that can raise our common humanity.
Want to sing now?