This article is part of our ongoing series 'Lockdown Listening' in which our writers share what they've been listening to during the London Coronavirus lockdown(s).
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There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on all of us. For those of us who thrive in performance with other musicians or being seated among thousands of other concert and operagoers, what I am deeming “Das Jahr ohne Musik” has been one of the most difficult in memory. That being said, this time has presented me with the unprecedented ability to get more acquainted with music and artists that I otherwise would not have had the time to listen to. This list will guide you through some of the more poignant pieces that stuck out to me throughout this period of lockdowns and social isolation.
1. Richard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos, 1916
Loneliness, abandonment, hopelessness. These are the emotions that are felt by Ariadne, who as the curtain comes up has been freshly abandoned by her lover, Theseus. I had heard Ariadne before, but something really spoke to me about it this year. In fact, I “rediscovered” it doing research for an essay on the American Soprano, Kathleen Battle (a veritable master of the difficult role of Zerbinetta.) I realized that I was feeling a lot like Ariadne, played impeccably here by Jessye Norman, who only longs for the past and is unable to see any sort of future at all. Further, Ariadne is geography displaced, much as I found myself suddenly back home (not that this was a negative experience though it was certainly disorientating.) Ariadne, awakening, lets out a guttural shout then asks, “Wo war ich?” describing the painful nature of her un-existence. She then dwells on nostalgic thoughts of her life with Theseus, much like I found myself reminiscing on life before March 2020.
2. Jules Massenet - Gavotte from Manon, 1884
One opera that was completely new to me was Massenet’s Manon. I was more or less coerced into watching this by my fellow opera aficionado, Shadi Seifouri. Manon’s Gavotte has become meaningful to me this year. Having celebrated my birthday in lockdown (a pleasant get-together with family and friends of sushi, cake and drinks on the back patio) I spent my 20th year of life mostly inside and isolated from the world. Manon repeats the phrase “Love, laugh and sing. You won’t be twenty forever” as if pointed directly towards me. This “live and let live mentality” combined with the upsetting nature of realizing her own mortality is perfectly presented in Lisette Oropesa’s rendition for the Royal Opera House’s live-streamed performance over the summer.
3. Ludwig van Beethoven - “Abscheulicher!” from Fidelio, 1805
2020 was supposed to be an incredibly big year for the composer Ludwig van Beethoven on account of his 250th Birthday. Almost every large-scale plan for performances of his greatest works were foiled by the pandemic. I was fortunate enough, however, to catch the London Symphony Orchestra led by Sir Simon Rattle for their performance of Christus am Ölberge. It would be the last live performance by a professional ensemble I would see before the first lockdown. Nevertheless, I did try to carve out some time for Beethoven this year, most recently by reading Laura Tunbridge’s Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces. Beethoven is a perfect subject for this year especially when one considers the isolation and loneliness that he must have felt being deaf for a good deal of his later life. As an Opera, Fidelio deals heavily with isolation through the prisoner, Florestan, who has been in solitary confinement away from the world. In “Abscheulicher” anger gives rise to hope as Leonore, his wife, formulates a plan to rescue him. Two performances stuck out for me this year. Christine Goerke sang the aria as a tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, supreme court justice and avid opera fanatic, outside of New York’s Lincoln Center. Lise Davidsen also released the piece as a single to her next solo studio album for which I am very excited.
4. Lorde - Ribs, 2013
Ok, fine. Not *everything* I listen to is “classical music.” Lorde’s song “Ribs” has been a favourite recently because of its repetitive nature and anxiety about ageing and finding a sense of self. I really like the way that Lorde repeats lyrics in new musical material, heightening the sense of restlessness. What is even more remarkable is that this song comes from her debut album, “Pure Heroine,” which was released when she was just 17 years old.
5. George Frideric Handel - “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion” from The Messiah , 1742
Moving back to London in September of 2020 did grant me opportunities to hear some live music again. One of the true highlights of my year was seeing Handel’s Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall mere hours before London was due to enter Tier 4 (eliminating any opportunities for public performance.) I had seen The Messiah before but there was something incredibly special about this. The performers were really “on it,” bringing new life to some of the numbers that often go unnoticed. Every time I see The Messiah, something new inevitably sticks out to me and this time is was the Aria “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion!” I’ve chosen the recording by Kathleen Battle who flawlessly demonstrates clarity not only in the English text but also the incredibly tricky melismas of Handel. Without a doubt, this is an extraordinarily “happy” tune.
6. Lady Gaga - National Anthem from the Inauguration of President Joe Biden, 2021
Lady Gaga has made herself known as one of the most talented and versatile artists of our time. Besides her successful pop career, Gaga has demonstrated her vast natural talent in performances alongside Tony Bennet and, perhaps most notably, at the Oscars where she performed a medley of songs from “The Sound of Music.” The Inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20, 2021 was special though. Gaga’s performance was powerful, sung in the key of Db and remaining firmly in the chest voice for the duration of the (quite frankly) terribly composed melody. The lyrics became especially meaningful as she sang on the site of a violent insurrection that happened only two weeks prior. Her strength became the strength and resolve of American Democracy. Indeed, everything about the performance was moving, especially as she motioned towards the Capital Dome on the line “That our flag was still there.” The performance was triumphant.
7. Richard Strauss - “Morgen!” From Op. 27 (1894)
So, we’ve come full circle back to Strauss and Norman. Thanks to the lockdown, I was able to get much more acquainted with both of their work. For those who know me well, they may be surprised to not see any Wagner on this list. Though I certainly have not forgotten about him (I was fortunate enough to present a paper a few weeks back on the issues of “Interruption” that one finds in his career and operas,) I took the time to explore operatic composers that I had not given as much attention to. Strauss, being a logical successor to Wagner, was at the forefront. His song, “Morgen!”, the last of four in Op. 27, is particularly moving. Even the opening vocal line (begun what seems like halfway through the phrase leading straight into a cadence) is stirring. The lyrics begin with the simple “Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen.” Somehow, through all of this, there is always still hope. As long as the sun continues to rise every morning, there will be light to guide our way back to each other.
John Henry Mackay
Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen
Und auf dem Wege, den ich gehen werde,
Wird uns, die Glücklichen, sie wieder einen
Inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde ...
Und zu dem Strand, dem weiten, wogenblauen,
Werden wir still und langsam niedersteigen,
Stumm werden wir uns in die Augen schauen,
Und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stummes Schweigen ...
English Translation © Richard Stokes
And tomorrow the sun will shine again
And on the path that I shall take,
It will unite us, happy ones, again,
Amid this same sun-breathing earth ...
And to the shore, broad, blue-waved,
We shall quietly and slowly descend,
Speechless we shall gaze into each other’s eyes,
And the speechless silence of bliss shall fall on us ...
Translation © Richard Stokes, author of The Book of Lieder (Faber, 2005)
Read other articles from the series here. They include:
Go to this Spotify playlist to listen to all the songs mentioned throughout the series!