A Playlist for Holy Week

I love roller coasters, but I fully admit, the past few weeks have been one roller coaster that I want to get off of. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a seismic shift in the daily routines of billions of people worldwide, forcing us to adapt to new personal and public norms. For both me and countless others, there have been challenges (moving a 450-student Music Appreciation class to an online format), disappointments (having to cancel a planned trip), and frustrations (not being able to go out with friends or family). Of course, this is all for a common, honorable cause but it’s still been tough adjusting to a new normal.

All that said, though, this pandemic has brought about many good things—alternative social interactions with friends, more quality time with my immediate family, tons of exercise (i.e., so many walks!), decreased pollution levels. The list goes on. I have also listened to a lot of music. Like, a LOT. And this past week in particular, I’ve been reflecting on the incredible variety, quality, and scope of classical music written either for or in the spirit of Holy Week.

So, I decided to construct a Holy Week playlist. The selections in this playlist are wildly eclectic and span almost a thousand years, ranging from the meditative sounds of the 11th-century nun-poet-composer Hildegard von Bingen to the decisively-modern style of James MacMillan. A total of twenty-three composers are represented (Bach three times!). Of course, sadly, many had to be left out.

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Wagner Guilt

Below is another guest contribution from Tanner Cassidy, author of last month’s post on issues of programming in classical music. Here, Tanner addresses his conflicting relationship with Wagner, his music, and his complex legacy.

Tanner Cassidy

I have suffered tremendous loss in a time of tremendous loss. At the end of a string of announced cancellations, the Lyric Opera of Chicago has canceled their production of the Ring Cycle. Plane tickets, years of payments, and careful planning it seems were all for not. Due to the way of the world right now, the creeping paranoia of cancellation has been brewing for some time, but the news finally arriving initially felt like I was finally beginning to accept this impending grief as reality.

However, even admitting this loss to any sort of public causes consternation to well up in my chest. I am ashamed of my proclivity for Wagner. Despite my best efforts, I am not comfortable with my choice of favorite composer. To even mention him as my favorite seems wrong, but before perhaps stating the obvious, I would like to explain the origin of this taste. 

I do not come from a musical family. I do not come from a well-off family. To be blunt, I do not come from a very cultured family. I hold no embitterment towards this, as how could I? It would be unfair to do such injustice to my parents, and they provided for me in ways that weren’t musical in nature. However, this meant I gleaned all of my musical taste from my middle and high school wind ensembles. A saxophone player, the world of orchestral and especially vocal music was foreign to me, and my mediocre schools lead to a lack of any variety or depth in repertoire. There was an exception that stuck out to me in my sophomore year of high school, however. My band director passed out Lucien Cailliet’s transcription of “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” from Lohengrin. We rehearsed, did a fair job at the concert, and put it away. The effect of this piece, however, took hold. I found in this piece my first taste of what orchestral and classical music could bring. It deepened the uncertain love of music I had at the time, and opened up the world of opera and chromaticism. In fact, the first theory paper I ever wrote was on this piece that I so treasured, and to this day it serves as a means of calming me down when I feel stressed. 

What I did not know was what this rabbit hole would lead me to. I was enamored by the music—the lush orchestration, shifting harmonies, beautiful motives, etc. What I did not pay attention to (initially) was the plot, the libretto, the context, or even the piece’s placement within Lohengrin. I found these things later, of course, but they were not a part of what attracted me in the first place. When I found other Wagner instrumental excerpts I experienced similar aesthetic delight. It was around this time that I discovered a smudge on the mental image of this music. When looking up more works by this strange German man, a biography began to appear. First, at a trickle, some of the more nefarious details of his life came to be. These were initially shallow, such as his habit for extramarital affairs and his reputation at the podium. However, at the moment, I had no cause for alarm. I knew next to nothing of music history, and he seemed at first glance as flawed as any other.

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Music for a Weary World

Let’s face it, the world is a scary place right now. Countless public places—schools, theme parks, theaters, churches—have shut their doors. The economy teeters dangerously on the brink of collapse. People are panic buying everything from canned goods to hand sanitizer. (If you are one of those people panic buying toilet paper, stop it!!) The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted billions of lives and spurred a persistent sense of dread, thanks in no small part to the endless deluge of news and information (and misinformation) on TV and social media.

The classical music world has also been deeply affected by this pandemic. Organizations around the globe have canceled concerts, operas, tours, festivals, and other events, many of which took years to plan. However, there are glimmers of hope and generosity everywhere. Some orchestras and opera houses are rebroadcasting recent performances (Seattle Symphony, Metropolitan Opera). Others have performed concerts to empty halls, live-streaming them on social media or other platforms (Philadelphia Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic). To top it all off, the Berlin Philharmonic is offering free, 30-day access to its incredible Digital Concert Hall. (Check it out—it’s 100% worth it.) It’s clear that classical music—indeed, music as a whole—will continue to be a source of life, comfort, and unity through these uncertain times. Maybe this (hopefully) short void of live music will even inspire new audiences and spark a revitalization of the art form, coaxing it from its still all-too-stuffy confines and into a larger world. Wishful thinking perhaps, but who knows?

To help combat the anxieties of this pandemic, I have curated a 5-hour (!) Spotify playlist filled with some of my favorite choral works, chamber pieces, concerto movements, and more. Though I am a staunch believer that classical music is so much more than just “nice chill-out music,” this is music that, to me, exudes peace, composure, and reverence (with a few lighter selections thrown in for good measure). May this be a small, but welcome antidote for our crazy world, and may we come out of this a little stronger, a little kinder, and a little more grateful than before.