By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Famous musicians are writing and releasing COVID-influenced music from home. While the nation faces worry from the novel coronavirus, bands like Nine Inch Nails and Arms and Sleepers are releasing albums of hope and vulnerability that reflect the times. Music has long been a mirror of history.
On March 26, the Grammy- and Oscar-winning rock band Nine Inch Nails released two new albums for free. The surprise instrumental releases Ghosts V and Ghosts VI—sequels to 2008’s first four Ghosts releases—come with a timely message about our current way of life.
“This situation has really made us appreciate the power and need for connection,” the band’s official website said. “Music […] has always been the thing that helped us get through anything, good or bad. With that in mind, we decided to burn the midnight oil and complete these new Ghosts records.” It’s an album that The New York Times said “faces the pandemic with hope, despair, and noise.”
And they’re not alone. Fresh from a mandatory coronavirus quarantine in Latvia, American electronic duo Arms and Sleepers wrote, recorded, and released Leviathan (In Times Of), a haunting piano- and keyboard-based instrumental suite about the pandemic (song titles include “How It Was, How It Will Be” and “Good Luck to Us All”).
Both Nine Inch Nails and Arms and Sleepers continue a long tradition of music representing major moments in history.
Music and History and Leoš Janáček
“At the most general level, a composer’s environment shapes his musical style—that is, the generalized musical vocabulary and expressive parameters of his work,” said Dr. Robert Greenberg, Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. “But sometimes, specific historical events shape the creation and content of a piece of music—[it’s] music written in direct response to [those] contemporary historical events.”
One example that Dr. Greenberg offered was the piano sonata From the Street, October 1, 1905, by Leoš Janáček. Greenberg said that Janáček was born and raised in Moravia, now a part of the Czech Republic. Janáček was an emphatic Moravian nationalist living in occupied land.
“At the time he grew up, all Czech lands, including Moravia, were controlled—were occupied—by a German-speaking ruling class: by Austrians and Germans,” Dr. Greenberg said. “From the Street, October 1, 1905, was composed in response to an anti-German protest on October 1 and 2, 1905, in Brno, the capital of Moravia. During the protest, German troops attacked the unarmed protesters and killed a 20-year-old Moravian carpenter named František Pavlík.”
Greenberg said that the sonata is comprised of two movements, called “The Presentiment” and “The Death,” respectively. It was a statement on the event and the occupation as told through Janáček’s perspective.
The Oriana Madrigals: More Propaganda Than News
Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in November 1558. According to Dr. Greenberg, she was often likened to the Greek goddess Diana as well as “Oriana,” an Italian nickname that translates to “the golden one.”
“In 1597, one of Elizabeth’s courtiers, a gentleman named Nicholas Yonge, published an anthology of small choral works called madrigals,” he said. “The last madrigal in the set, by a then well-known composer named Giovanni Croce, was entitled ‘Where between the Grass and Flowers.’ This particular madrigal was chosen to round off the set because it concluded with a salute to Queen Elizabeth herself: ‘Then sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana: / Long live fair Oriana!'”
Dr. Greenberg said that this final madrigal was noticed by famed English composer Thomas Morley, to whom Elizabeth had granted a music publishing monopoly. Morley decided to honor her by publishing a collection of 26 new madrigals each ending with the same lyric as “Where between the Grass and Flowers.”
According to Dr. Greenberg, Morley’s own contribution, “Hard by a Crystal Fountain,” praises 16th-century England as a paradise with birds chirping, gentle winds, the eponymous crystal fountain, and so on.
“I would assure you that London in the late 16th century was not a particularly heavenly place but rather […] where more people died than were born, and consequently only maintained its population due to the constant influx of peasants from the countryside,” he said. “But this madrigal is not about urban truth, but rather public perception, and after four decades of rule, the popular myth was that Elizabeth had made England heaven on Earth.”
This exaggeration of life under Elizabeth, Dr. Greenberg said, is part of what’s called a “cultural self-perception.” While it is a reaction to contemporary history, it does glorify queen and country in a way that becomes part of the nation’s narrative.
Whether it speaks literally, such as Janáček’s piano sonata, or as a glorified testament to the day, like Morley’s madrigal, music can serve as historical documentation. The novel coronavirus has been more obtrusive to daily life in the United States than any disease since the second wave of the 1918 flu, and perhaps it’s no surprise that music reflecting the times—or “quarantunes,” if you will—has already begun to surface. For now, bands like Nine Inch Nails, Arms and Sleepers, and likely other musicians to come are making forays into music as journalism.
Dr. Robert Greenberg contributed to this article. Dr. Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley.