Throughout history, times of plague and illnesses have led to periods of social isolation as both prevention and cure. These instances have produced important and groundbreaking works of literature, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And they also often led to remarkable and revolutionary pieces of musical literature. We collected a few examples of music written during various quarantines.
While some residents of medieval Europe took the bubonic plague in stride and decided to stare death in the face with a huge parties, composer Guillaume de Machaut was more prudent. For a brief time he avoided society completely, allowing him to survive. As he left isolation, he took up a position of the canon at the Cathedral at Reims. When he arrived on the job, he brought a freshly composed piece as a show of devotion to his new position. It is also the earliest known complete setting of the ordinary of the mass: the Messe de Nostre Dame.
Because the verses of the ordinary (the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) are not done together in a mass, composers had not previously conceived of them as a unit. But this became a standard that has lasted even to today.
Igor Stravinsky’s situation was not quite so dire. But after the premiere of his Rite of Spring, which, riot or not, was a dramatic sensation, he did contract typhoid from some bad oysters. While he was recovering in a nursing home, he began work on his opera The Nightingale. During that progress, his wife gave birth to their fourth child and contracted tuberculosis. So, moving from one recovery to another, Stravinsky finished this opera, also known by its translated title Le Rossingol, near the sanitorium where his wife resided in the Swiss Alps during her convalescence.
The opera was not a rousing success – mostly because it was not as sensational as the Rite. The delicate nature of the music is touching from the composer, and not unrecognizable to those familiar with Stravinsky’s full output.
Ludwig van Beethoven chose to isolate himself due to illness multiple times. The first of which was his visit to Heiligenstadt in 1802. He wrote his famous Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his brothers in which he openly discussed his illness and his despair over it. The music that followed this interlude away from home constitutes a middle period of Beethoven’s composition career, which has come to be known as the heroic period. It began with his third symphony.
Frederic Chopin had a runaway romance with writer George Sand, quite literally. The happy couple quickly became distressed in 1839 during a harsh winter in Majorca, and Sand quickly evacuated a seriously ill Chopin to Marseille, where he was found to be suffering from tuberculosis. His recuperation began the happiest period of the composer’s life, in which he composed many solo piano pieces, including his Opus 55 Nocturnes.
The honeymoon of their relationship did not last, as Chopin’s behavior became erratic – now thought to be the result of neurological issues. And Sand’s departure from their relationship left him broken-hearted.
Immediately upon his arrival in the USA in November of 1918 Sergei Rachmaninoff and his daughters were stricken with the influenza strain known as the Spanish flu. But, the composer had debts to pay, so during his family’s convalescence he had to prepare for a tour of 36 concerts. His new works for this tour were all transcriptions, including his own take on the anthem of the country that had welcomed him – the Star Spangled Banner.
Here is a recording of the composer himself:
You can find continuing coverage of the coronavirus in middle Tennessee and the recovery from the March 3 tornadoes on our sister station WPLN. In the meantime, 91Classical will continue to bring an uplifting and inspiring playlist of classical music – here whenever you need it.