Composers in Quarantine

COVID-19 is not the first widespread disease to plague humanity. The world – for the most part – continues to respond as we have done in the past: with humanity, compassion, and creativity.

It’s human nature to seek joy in beauty, books and music during a time of plague, as noted by the physician and anatomist Niccolo Massa who endured the Black Plague of the 1500s:

“Many people, from fear and imagination alone, have fallen to pestilential fever, therefore, it is necessary to be joyful… It is especially advantageous to listen to songs and lovely instrumental music, and to play now and then, and to sing with a quiet voice…”

Curious about composers working during times of plague, I dug into that topic and found a myriad of great articles and extensive publications that recount the stories of historical composers who either fell victim to or survived various plagues such as Machaut, Guerrera, Rossi, and Shutz.

One of the earliest instances of music I have found that was created during the shadows of a plague is the Medieval plainchant Stella Caeli Extirpavit, sung in response to the Portugese Black Death of 1340s.

Stella Cæli Extirpavit

Like the challenges we face in the present, artists of the past also struggled with newfound isolation and fear and how to respond with their craft.

For me, the most gripping story is that of Charpentier’s composition Pestis Medolanensis, or “The Plague of Milan”(c. 1680) – a dramatic motet for soloists and consort written in response to the Bubonic plague that struck Italy in the late 1570s. It was created and dedicated in honor of the charitable acts and response of the acting Bishop of Milan during the crisis. It remains most notable to me because it brings attention to moments of light rather than focusing upon the darkness.

Charpentier: La Peste de Milan

As musicians, many of us are recreating our own communities online the best we can with the hope of inciting the energy and passion we once held together in person.

I am so inspired by the incredible resourcefulness of our choral community in Colorado as we each navigate the arts in Zoomland the best we can.
As we continue to reach out to friends and colleagues for further resources, I encourage you to reach out to folk creating the very art we so dearly miss – composers.

During these unknown times, I encourage you to reach out to a living composer. Whether you hold a conversation about their creative process, about exploring a new commission, or simply checking in to see how they are managing a common reality, these artists are yearning to see their artform used as a salve for wounded spirits.

Composer/professor Rob Deemer curates the Institute for Composer Diversity, a remarkable growing database “committed to the celebration, education, and advocacy of music created by composers from historically underrepresented genders, racial, ethnic, and cultural heritages, and sexual orientations as well as disabled composers.” You can also find local artists in each state – such as this database from composer, Misty DuPuis, that features Colorado composers. I encourage you to reach out to any of these artists. While it may be a new conversation for you, especially if the idea of commissioning remains daunting for you, it is actually much simpler than you’d think. And likely, your shared ideas with a composer will serve as a source of inspiration far beyond your own and be the impetus for a new work that our world could really use right now.

May we each do our part to spark creativity and hope in the days and weeks and months to come.