Tragedy, Grief, and Music

I don’t think I need to use space here to update you on the news coming out of Newtown, Connecticut today. The mass shooting at an elementary school there is deeply saddening, whether one has children of his or her own or not. I was listening to NPR’s special coverage earlier this afternoon and heard reporters holding back sobs when talking about the latest updates. These are the kinds of events that scar – the one’s where even highly trained reporters are pulled into the trauma in very personal ways.

As one might expect from me, I’ve been trying to figure out what piece of music to listen to, as a memorializing act of catharsis. There are the old standards like Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and Brahms’ “German Requiem.” Then there’s John Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls” and Steve Reich’s “WTC 9/11,” written in memorial of another great modern American tragedy, yet hold emotional truths that can speak to this one as well. Or maybe I should go into the pop realm for something off Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” or Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.”

However, what seems to sear me (and probably most people too) about this tragedy is that it happened to little kids. The victims here are not just those killed, but their forever-traumatized classmates as well. The picture of two children in the woods by the school, shielding their faces from the tragedy, has gone viral, an instant symbol of a collective loss of innocence. This has sent me looking for music that is about children or performed by children, music that captures both the despair one feels when faced with tragedy, and the accompanying loss of innocence of children that witness it.

The first piece that fits the moment for me is David Lang’s haunting “Little Match Girl Passion.” In the piece, four singers weave together the tale of Hans Christian Andersen’s impoverished little match girl and the passion of Jesus (as told by J.S. Bach). In its stark simplicity, rife with piercingly soft minor sonorities, the piece articulates how we adults feel when witnessing the suffering of an innocent child.

This next piece for the moment is quite as starkly sad as Lang’s “Passion,” but still deals with loss and is written to heard and performed by children. It is Benjamin Britten’s “Cuckoo Song,” used to devastating effect in Wes Anderson’s film “Moonrise Kingdom.” It is a quite simple and tonal piece, ambiguously floating between major and minor. However, what really gets me about it is the subtle despair of its lyrics – the beloved cuckoo bird goes from singing in the spring to leaving when autumn approaches. The industrial-strength melody just sears the nerves off when it reaches its peak on “away.”

After listening to these two pieces and searching for another, I came across a recording of my own piece, “Spring and Fall: to a Young Child.” It too deals with a child’s loss of innocence. In Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, the speaker observes a child crying at the sight of falling leaves, realizing that through this observation, the child is confront her own mortality. The piece was not intended to memorialize a specific moment or tragedy. It was just that I found the poem quite moving and peculiarly musical. In my original program note for the piece, I talk more about children’s literature like the Velveteen Rabbit and Toy Story 3 than any specific moment in my life or another’s. It’s a small piece about a small, nearly universalizable moment. But just as the two previous pieces will be forever altered in my mind because of their associations with the events of today, perhaps my piece could take on a new meaning as well.

Either way, I hope you find some solace in music on this difficult day and would gladly take recommendations of what to listen to next.

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