What is it about classical music that helps us deal with grief? Its reflective qualities and sophistications often seem to get buried in our overstressed era of media overload. Sometimes we need a forceful reminder of great music's uncanny power to see us through times of crisis, sadness, and mourning — and, recently, we got one. In fact, we made it happen.
New York Times music critic James R. Oestreich comes to Charleston to cover Spoleto Festival USA every year, and so took something of a proprietary interest last month as the Holy City honored her nine fallen firefighters at the Coliseum. He was quick to respond to our emotional outpouring at the June 22 memorial service, writing about its music for the Times the next day.
He zeroed in on the Charleston Symphony Orchestra's repeated playing of the lovely Air on the G String, one of J.S. Bach's best-known works, during the opening processional. While this serene and stately piece isn't intrinsically tragic or mournful, it still offers an effective artistic framework for such sad and solemn occasions. In Oestreich's words, "It invites and repays contemplation and thus lends itself to spiritual states like mourning."
Oestreich also wrote of other therapeutic music he'd heard during Spoleto just weeks before, in a memorial concert for the late festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti: the throbbing Adagio for Strings by American master Samuel Barber — who was also Menotti's longtime companion. As he pointed out, nobody who's seen the movie Platoon will ever hear that keening, upward-arching threnody in quite the same way again. It was the obvious choice to honor Menotti.
Another potent example from Spoleto was Franz Schubert's aching C Major Cello Quintet. Written just months before the composer's death at age 31, I hear it as his poignant farewell to life. It was also a favorite of Menotti's, and Charles Wadsworth programmed it for the final Dock Street chamber concert in shattering tribute to his old friend and mentor. For me, there's no greater heartbreak in all of Western art. There's something about such music that reaches deep inside you to prop up your sagging soul, wash away your pain, and help you find the strength to go on. I want it played at my own funeral someday.
Even though Bach didn't write his Air for funereal or memorial purposes, there's a great deal of other music out there that was created with just that in mind. The requiem — originally a variant of the Roman Catholic Latin Mass — is the most common form. Examples by Mozart and the French composer Gabriel Fauré are among the most popular, even appealing to folks who don't generally go for that "highbrow stuff."
My own favorite is Johannes Brahms' tender, great German Requiem: one of the first to abandon the ancient Latin texts. That music has long served as the heart of my personal mourning ritual, having helped me get past my own heavy losses. I'm also in the habit of giving CDs of it to bereaved friends as a sort of musical "sympathy card." No drippy doggerel on frilly parchment can even come close to its power to console and heal.
It's nice to see Chucktown get a nationally visible artistic pat on the back for something besides Spoleto. We managed to show the world how to mourn our fallen heroes with solemn dignity and a touch of genuine class — while offering a potent object lesson on the continuing relevance of classical music in a world that's sure to need much more of it in years to come.