Evanston RoundTable, April 15, 2020
There is a remarkable YouTube video of the British composer Alma Deutscher telling a recent audience about a piece she has written. Ms. Deutscher is 15 and has been composing classical music since she was six. Aside from writing music she is also an accomplished violinist and pianist who performs as soloist in her concertos.
In the video, from a Carnegie Hall concert in December 2019 at which the audience is about to hear her “Siren Sounds Waltz,” she explains that the opening is purposely discordant, “a complete cacophony,” as she says, because it is meant to convey the sounds of police sirens and cars honking.
“It starts in such a strange way,” she says, displaying her delightful smile and preternatural composure, “and I don’t want you to get a shock.” She describes moving with her family to Vienna and hearing the lilting sounds of Viennese police sirens, very different from the caterwauling American kind. When she heard the siren sound, she told the audience, “I tried in my mind to continue it as a melody. And since Vienna is a city of waltzes, I thought I should turn it into a waltz melody.
“Now, I’ve always wanted to write beautiful music, music that comes right out of the heart and speaks directly to the heart. Some people have told me, ‘Nowadays, melodies and beautiful harmonies are no longer acceptable in serious classical music, because in the 21st century, music must reflect the ugliness of the modern world.’” She pauses for some nervous laughter from the audience: it sounds shocking and almost cruel to describe modern music this way—purposely ugly—and yet in some ways it is true. Old-fashioned melodies, music of transcendent beauty, have for many years been out of favor in conservatory academies, replaced by the edgier and more strident sounds that many 20th century and modern composers felt matched the pace, pressure and intensity of contemporary life.
“But in this waltz,” she continues, “instead of trying to make my music artificially ugly, in order to reflect the modern world, I went in exactly the opposite direction. I took some ugly sounds from the modern world, and I tried to turn them into something more beautiful, through music.” Before she can continue, the audience breaks into spontaneous applause. Hooray, the applause seems to signify: here is someone who wants us to love what we’re hearing rather than wrestle, tangle and fight with it.
Of course, historical accuracy requires a further explanation. Many 19th century masterpieces were greeted with howls of derision when they were premiered. Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, ranked in 2016 as the greatest symphony of all time by BBC Music Magazine, was according to one contemporary critic “…so shrill and complicated that only those who worship the failings and merits of this composer with equal fire, which at times borders on the ridiculous, could find pleasure in it.”
And surely Ms. Deutscher’s music will change and grow more sophisticated, complex and possibly even tragic as she experiences more of life’s ups and downs.
Still, in our current moment of hardship and deprivation, we can see her point. Surrounded by fear and uncertainty, we must enjoy and appreciate beauty all the more. As we struggle to deal with and even transcend our current self-imposed isolation, the search for beauty becomes all the more important as a source of balm and solace.
The Belgian author and psychotherapist Esther Perel, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, describes first hearing Faure’s Requiem as “akin to a religious experience…it allowed me to express a sadness I didn’t know what to do with.” She went on to say, “The language of music brings out different parts of us. It’s universal. It’s probably the most important thing with which [we] can make peace.”
We need peace and beauty in our lives—especially now. Thankfully such experiences are readily available online. Many great art museums—including the British Museum in London, the Guggenheim in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, and other famous museums in Paris, Berlin, Florence, Amsterdam and Mexico City—offer free online tours. And YouTube is just a click away with its vast collection of great jazz, folk, rock and classical music from around the world.
What better time to explore the finest art and luxuriate in the glorious sounds of our best musicians? What better time to revisit our old favorites and discover new ones. What better time to rise above anxiety and desperation.