The Guardian view on music and pandemics: the global prisoners’ chorus

As the Covid-19 virus has taken hold, human beings have turned to singing and music. We are expressing an eternal need for harmony

Music, said Saint Thomas Aquinas, can be defined as “the exaltation of the mind derived from things eternal bursting forth in sound”. Faced with the stresses and difficulties of the coronavirus outbreak, it should come as no surprise that so many people have found a response to the pandemic in music. Our bodies may be doing the right and responsible thing by remaining at home, but our minds are not so easily locked down. Things eternal still need to burst forth somehow, and in the face of the Covid-19 virus, music has become one of humankind’s most defiant public assertions that life must continue in harmony.

Nowhere has this musical expression of the will to survive been more inspiring than in Italy. A week ago, a few Italians began to open their windows in the evening and venture out on their balconies to sing. Neighbours opened their shutters and joined in. The music went viral and caught on. They sang Italy’s national anthem, local folk songs and popular melodies. Musicians joined in with their instruments. The non-musical banged pans. In towns lucky enough to be home to an opera singer, live renderings of Verdi and Puccini arias have echoed through the empty streets.

Not every country in Europe is as musical as Italy. Not every country has narrow streets lined by houses with balconies either. But Italy is not alone in turning to music in its time of trouble. Singing and live music has been reported across Europe from Spain to Sweden. In Ireland, Bono responded on social media with his first new song since 2017. With concerts mostly abandoned everywhere, livestreaming of all forms of music has snowballed in every country and across Europe’s closed borders. It is almost as though music has suddenly become the expression of the way we wish the world was, even while the lockdowns are the embodiment of the world as, for the present, it actually is.

When people look back on the pandemic of 2020, they will remember many things. One of them ought to be the speed with which human beings, their freedom to associate constrained, turned towards music in what may almost be described as a global prisoners’ chorus. In music, supply has been quick to respond to demand. The Berlin-based concert pianist Igor Levit plays a sonata live on Twitter each evening from his living room. Singers including Pink and Miley Cyrus have done the same on Instagram. Meanwhile many opera houses and orchestras have responded to shutdowns by putting their performance archives online for free.

Simon Rattle, who conducted a livestreamed concert from an empty hall in Berlin last weekend, put it well when he said beforehand: “We hope that simply playing sends a signal.” It absolutely does. It also sends a memo to the future. Music education should be a core task in schools, when they reopen. We need music more than ever at present. But our need for things eternal to burst forth in sound will never die.

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Editorial

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