Music to engage war-battered souls

The right piece can clarify, comfort or be a catharsis

Classical Music

March 23, 2003|By Tim Smith | By Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Music has a long association with war. It used to accompany armies into battle and still gets drafted into morale-boosting service. It can soothe the anxiety and pain of those caught up directly in war, or merely watching from afar. It can challenge the very concept of war, too.

Shortly after the long-anticipated conflict in Iraq broke out last week, Baltimore Choral Arts Society director Tom Hall kept hearing two pieces of music in his head. "One was the Donna Nobis Pacem by Vaughan Williams," he said. "The other was from Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, the duet at the end between the two combatants, joined together in death, speaking to each other -- 'Let us sleep now.' It's one of the most moving moments in all of music. Those pieces individualized some of the feelings I've been having."

The Iraq war has had Peabody Institute director and composer Robert Sirota concentrating even harder on a current composition project of his own -- a piece about another kind of strife, racial conflict in American cities. "I don't see music as an escape, but as a way of clarifying and defining how I feel," he said. "I don't like the idea of music as balm."

If someone asked him what to listen to in the shadow of current events, Sirota would suggest Britten's War Requiem and another anti-war work, Michael Tippet's A Child of Our Time. "They're not going to make anyone feel great," he said, "but they will make them think."

Artists, dedicated to creation, tend to react strongly against destructive things. Musicians, in particular, experience the bonding power of art. "If you put everyone who's involved in this Iraq war into a room and had them sing Mozart's C minor Mass," said Edward Polochick, artistic director of the Concert Artists of Baltimore, "how could they possibly fight one another afterward? The arts are the civilizer of mankind, and music is the comfort, the solace."

When he's in need of solace, Polochick considers such things as the last movement of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony ("one of those great, healing pieces"), Bach's B minor Mass, Ballade No. 4 by Chopin ("it really pulls me into another world"), and that Donna Nobis Pacem.

Margaret Budd, an organist and director of Community Concerts at Second Presby- terian Church, has found herself thinking about requiems and such organ works as Jean Langlais' Poem for Peace. "Bach wrote profoundly for organ," she said, "so anyone looking for solace will find it there."

Virginia Reinecke, a pianist and director of the Music in the Great Hall series at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church, doesn't think "music is to be used." But for those hoping to extract a calming quality from the aural art, she would suggest any chamber music by Brahms -- "especially the Clarinet Trio or the A major Piano Quartet, which is music beyond the realm of human experiences," she says. "It is so spiritual."

Brahms came to the mind of Baltimore Symphony Orches-tra concertmaster Jonathan Carney, too. Not that he thinks of music when confronted with troubling events. "I'm not really like that," he said. "But I did play an old recording of the Brahms F minor Piano Quintet -- with Arthur Rubinstein and the Guarneri Quartet -- last week. I hadn't played it in years. It was something I have always loved, from the first time I heard it. So maybe that was my way of finding some comfort."

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