Opinion: history shows that extraordinary music has emerged from the most extraordinary of circumstances

Recent social media feeds have filled up with musical responses to an unfolding global crisis. From Italian balcony serenades to socially distant St. Patricks Day parades, the world has sought solace in song. Music's particular capacity to lift the human spirit in the darkest of moments is, of course, long established and some of its greatest works are entwined with their makers greatest trials. emerging from the painful and profound to provide solace and substance. 

A masterpiece of classical music composed and premiered in a German prisoner of war camp; an ambient classic unfolding as the Twin Towers burn; a pop culture icon soundtracks his own terminal illness: here's a selection of works emerging from the painful and profound to provide solace and substance.

Olivier Messiaen "Quartet For The End of Time"

French composer Olivier Messiaen was 31 years old when he was called to military service in 1939. In the summer of 1940, he was captured by German troops and detained in the Stalag VIII-A prisoner-of-war camp. Two elements of chance surrounding Messiaen’s imprisonment enabled him to compose and premiere one of the most renowned chamber works of the 20th century while in captivity. Three of Messiaen’s fellow prisoners were gifted musicians and some music-loving German officers in the camp supplied paper and a pencil.

As a result, Messiaen was able to compose Quartet For The End of Time, a work which Rebecca Rischin described as "attesting to the eternal freedom of the spirit over the temporal captivity of the body." in For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet. The piece was performed by Messiaen and his fellow prisoners in the camp on January 15th 1941.

Messiaen described the performance thus: "The four musicians played on broken instruments … I myself wearing a bottle-green suit of a Czech soldier … I played my Quartet For The End of Time, before an audience of 5,000 people. The most diverse classes of society were mingled: farmers, factory workers, intellectuals, professional servicemen, doctors and priests. Never before have I been listened to with such attention and understanding."

Nina Simone "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)"

Three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, Nina Simone and band took to the stage at the Westbury Music Festival and performed this new piece. Lasting close to 15 minutes, Why? sees Simone celebrate King’s vision and compassion, express her outrage and despair and issue a plea for society to reevaluate and react.

William Basinski "Disintegration Loops"

Experimental composer and ambient musician Willian Basinski spent much of the 1980s creating tape loops of sounds sampled from shortwave radio. In 2001, Basinski set about digitising his archive of loops. The worn and weathered tapes however, began to disintegrate as they played. The sounds they contained similarly faded, gaps and spaces emerging in the music as the tape decayed. This process was captured on the digital recordings.

Basinski finished the project on the morning of September 11th 2001. As he listened back, history began to unfold around him as the terror attacks at the nearby World Trade Centre commenced. The work has since become inextricably linked with the events of that day, Basinski’s decaying melancholic loops expressing something of the loss suffered that day.

David Bowie "Blackstar"

When Bowie released his 25th studio album on on January 8th 2016, few realised that they were listening to the iconic artist’s "parting gift" as he battled the terminal cancer that would claim his life two days later. What seemed at first to be a work in which an ageing artist reflected upon his mortality was revealed to be the sound of a man working through and drawing upon terminal illness and the knowledge of his own impending death.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds "Ghosteen"

Since the sudden death of his teenage son Arthur in 2015, Nick Cave’s life and work have become indistinguishable spaces filled both with healing and hurt. Though largely written before Arthur’s death, 2016’s "Skeleton Tree" album is imbued with Cave’s grief. The song "I Need You", for example, depicts a world in which the private, the public and the profound collapse into one space of confusion, love and hurt. Repeated references to supermarkets intertwine with domestic imagery, lines about black cars and statements such as, "nothing really matters, When the one you love is gone."

In 2018, Cave established his Red Hand Files blog, a space which has functioned as a remarkable platform in which Cave and members of the public work through their thoughts on art, religion, grief and more. Cave also seems to have prefigured something here that is likely to be of increasing concern in the coming weeks and months: how can the toxicity of much online culture be reconfigured into something more compassionate and purposeful?

Cave’s most complete exploration of his utterly changed world came on 2019’s album "Ghosteen". Despite the obvious pain that imbues the work, Cave has described the band’s desire for it "to be a vessel that transported the listener far away from the world and its troubles, and that it lived in the jubilant and hopeful beyond." Writing about the album on The Red Hand Files, Cave offers an insight that, again, seems poignant as many of us will, in the coming weeks, seek splendour on our doorsteps, balconies or in our gardens. 

If there is sadness in "Ghosteen",  it is the recognition that we are often blind to the splendour of the world and indifferent to its attendant wonder. Perhaps the sadness is the recognition that the world is indeed beautiful, that it spins within the palm of our own hands and its beauty is available to all, if only we had eyes to see.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ