When Great Tragedy Inspires Music Through the centuries, composers have found inspiration in history's lowest moments — works of tragedy, works of inspiration. Host Guy Raz speaks with St. Louis Symphony conductor David Robertson and Washington Post classical critic Anne Midgette about some of the highlights in classical composition inspired by tragedy.

When Great Tragedy Inspires Music

When Great Tragedy Inspires Music

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/140382375/140382351" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Through the centuries, composers have found inspiration in history's lowest moments — works of tragedy, works of inspiration. Host Guy Raz speaks with St. Louis Symphony conductor David Robertson and Washington Post classical critic Anne Midgette about some of the highlights in classical composition inspired by tragedy.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Christina Flannery.

RAZ: This is a piece of music inspired by the tragedy of September 11th. It's called "On the Transmigration of Souls," and in 2003, it won a Pulitzer Prize for the composer John Adams. Now, if you've been listening to the memorial ceremonies this weekend or maybe you even attended one yourself somewhere in the country, there's a pretty good chance you heard a classical composition, maybe something entirely unrelated to 9/11 or even to tragedy at all.

But music, nonetheless, that somehow felt right. Appropriate and powerful enough to move you.

DAVID ROBERTSON: One of the amazing things about music is that it touches our deepest non-verbal feelings and that's one of the reasons, I think, that people tend to turn to it at moments when words seem to fail us.

RAZ: David Robertson is the music director and conductor of the St. Louis Symphony.

ROBERTSON: So I think for us as musicians, composers, performers, there is this sense that at times like that, sometimes, it's just really important to play a piece of music for people, and it doesn't necessarily matter all that much what piece it really is because people will find their own ways of allowing that music to address them.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Matthew Timothy O'Mahony.

RAZ: Composers have responded to the events of history for centuries, but David Robertson says that momentum didn't really begin to pick up until the 20th century.

ROBERTSON: Through radio, there was a sense of being able to participate in these various events in real time. It creates a kind of universal timestamp, if you will, for everyone of a certain event.

RAZ: And he points to the example of composer Luciano Berio. Before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Berio had written a short simple piece in his honor, but after King's death in 1968, the composer revisited his work.

ROBERTSON: After Martin Luther King was shot, he wrote a much larger version of this but for various different voices in the middle of his orchestral piece symphonia. And in this piece, he really explores the kind of wonder that comes about from being able to name some person and it's only really at the very end of the piece where you have each one of the singers sing Oh Martin Luther.


ROBERTSON: The Martin Luther King movement suddenly has these snare drums which are placed around the orchestra so as far apart on the stage as you can get them, and they're ricocheting these very loud what are called rim shots when you hit the side of the drum as well as the drum head. And they actually sound like gunshots.

And with this very calm Martin Luther King music going on underneath, and this sort of scurrying around, it's very much a picture of the kind of unrest and violent reaction to that unrest that one saw in the '60s and early '70s.


RAZ: Some of the most stirring and seemingly appropriate works, pieces that seem written for the occasion, are very often not. Washington Post classical music critic Anne Midgette points to Josef Haydn's "Mass in Time of War" as a classic example.

ANNE MIDGETTE: Written when Austria was mobilizing to fight the French at a time when the government was cracking down on, I think they had forbidden their populace to discuss peace. Everybody had to be very pro-war.

RAZ: This is in the late 18th century.

MIDGETTE: 1796, it was written, and there's no absolute proof that Haydn meant this as an anti-war piece or not. But there are certain, particularly in the last two movements, there are certain twists to the music, a sense of unease that is not typical of Haydn that it's easy at least to read or project that element into it.


RAZ: As a matter of fact, some of the pieces we most associate with grieving weren't written with that purpose in mind at all. For example, Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings."

MIDGETTE: Which has become the effective anthem of mourning in our country, and it wasn't intended even to be mourning. It's a beautiful piece, and everybody assumes that it's a piece of mourning. You hear it and you tear up and that is completely a projection in a way.


RAZ: After September 11th, dozens of composers wrote works inspired by the aftermath in the events of that day. The latest one is just out now, written by Steven Reich. It's called "WTC 9/11."


RAZ: When a work is composed for a specific event like these 9/11 commissions, do they lose a certain timelessness? Can they stand alone in a different context? I asked Anne Midgette that question.

MIDGETTE: It's tricky because classical music has a civic function as well as an artistic function, and a lot of these 9/11 commemorative pieces are filling that civic function where you don't necessarily want a strong artistic statement, you want a piece of music that's going to fill the need of this audience for that particular event.

RAZ: But, she says, in many cases, the civic and artistic functions of classical music do come together to form a lasting work of art.

MIDGETTE: Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" was written for a very specific event. It was written for the rededication of Coventry Cathedral which was bombed in World War II. It was rededicated in 1962 and that piece has survived and prevailed as a great piece, independent of the reason it was written.


RAZ: David Robertson of the St. Louis Symphony believes that memorial compositions stand out best when you actually feel moved by them, even if you don't necessarily know any of the background.

ROBERTSON: When they speak to us in a way where it somehow awakens within us a sensitivity to something and makes us aware of how this is the life we have and we're sharing it with others and therefore we need to treat it with great care.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.