by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, October 8, 2001.
On May 7, 1915, the Lusitania was sunk by a German torpedo, taking with it more than a thousand lives. Later that day, in downtown Manhattan, an insurance executive and part-time composer named Charles Ives was standing on an Elevated-train platform when he heard a barrel organ playing "In the Sweet Bye and Bye." One by one, those around him began to sing along: first, a workman with a shovel, then a Wall Street banker in white spats, and finally the entire motley crowd. "They didn't seem to be singing in fun," Ives recalled, "but as a natural outlet for what their feelings had been going through all day long." Ives recorded the experience in an orchestral work entitled From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose. It was intended to capture "the sense of many people living, working, and occasionally going through the same deep experience together."
Everyone who was in New York on September 11th will remember not only the sun-drenched terror of the day but also the fullness of human contact in the weeks that followed. Often, the connection was made through music, and the voice of the people again arose in unlikely places. A few days after the attack, I went with my companion and other friends to a vigil in Union Square, on the northern edge of the East Village, where American flags used to be as rare as neckties. We joined a youngish crowd that seemed a little amazed to find itself singing "America the Beautiful." Our group was just warming to it when our neighbors decided to have a go at "The Star-Spangled Banner," creating a snarl of Ivesian counterpoint. Some loud Buddhist chanting nearby made it difficult for either of the hymns to gain momentum. After a while, we all fell silent, and a lone trumpet played "Amazing Grace." Young modern selves, accustomed to nights alone in the home-entertainment watchtower, were stepping cautiously into a Frank Capra scene that turned out to be comfortably real.
What does music give us when words are stopped in our throats? On an ordinary day, music takes us out of ourselves, allowing us to forget whatever self-invented dramas may be pressing on us. The effect is seldom lasting. But when we are all in the grip of the same emotion, music can shoulder the heaviest part of what we are feeling. A familiar tune billows above us, and we are carried along by it for a short distance. It is a performance with no audience, in which the singers listen and the listeners sing. And only the most familiar, worn-out tune will do. When one part of the crowd is devoted to Jay-Z and another part to John Zorn, the common ground becomes "God Bless America."
Uptown, the city's major musical institutions, which ordinarily move with the alacrity of glaciers, marshalled several remarkable memorial concerts on a few days' notice. The Great Performers series, whose Rachmaninoff Festival had to be postponed when the Philharmonia Orchestra was unable to cross the ocean, presented the Emerson Quartet in a free program at Avery Fisher Hall. The New York Philharmonic somehow put together an impromptu performance of Brahms's sprawling German Requiem. To benefit the World Trade Center victims, the Metropolitan Opera presented a preview of its opening-night Verdi gala, raising two and a half million dollars. The classical repertory, with its inborn solemnity and flair for catastrophe, was standing ready for the occasion. A program of Bach cantatas by the New York Baroque Soloists and the Orchestra of St. Luke's, for example, issued a lot of potentially incendiary rhetoric about the war against Satan. The canonical masterpieces were written at a time when mourning was routine, and they seemed to know all about what we were feeling, if not what was happening. Whenever the world goes up in flames, Beethoven makes perfect sense. It was true in the Second World War, when the opening notes of the Fifth Symphony were a code for victory, and it was true again last week, when the Emerson Quartet's performance of the Quartet in C-Sharp Minor, Opus 131, shed as much light on the reigning insanity as anything that had been heard on CNN.
Opus 131, which Beethoven finished less than year before his death, has always had a formidable reputation. "Perfect, inevitable, inalterable," Stravinsky said. For all its thematic cohesion, it is an unsettling narrative, rambling through a wasteland fugue, a rustic intermezzo, a bit of operatic recitative, a set of fantastic variations on a mundane theme, a giddy presto, a slow movement that never gets started, and, finally, a wrathful finale, which Stravinsky called "a Magyar uprising." In the wrong hands, the piece can fit the composer's joking description of it as "various odds and ends thrown together." On the Sunday after the attack, it was simply the way things were. The Emersons, who were still shaken by the event, sounded vulnerable, not quite in control, and thus came even closer to the heart of the music than they have on their usual brilliant nights. Beethoven's quartet ceases to be cryptic when it is understood as the defiant response of a majestic mind to some unnamed trauma.
The Emersons also played Barber's panoramic Adagio, which brought people to tears, and Bartók's desolate Second Quartet, which made them squirm. Bartók's dissonances had a too familiar ring, like a flashback to Tuesday. In recent days, I've found that my musical appetites are more limited than usual, and the dark and disturbing component of the twentieth-century repertory has been hard to take. It did not help to read, in the Times and elsewhere, the comments of Karlheinz Stockhausen, who called the destruction of the World Trade Center a Luciferian masterpiece—"the greatest work of art imaginable." The onetime leader of the postwar avant-garde was indulging in an adolescent fantasy that has deep roots in the modernist enterprise—that of the artist as destroyer. The avant-garde is at its best when nothing much is going on; it has less to offer a city whose nerves are shot.
During the Second World War, Wallace Stevens asked, quoting Shakespeare, "How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?" How, in other words, can artists respond to news that exceeds their most extravagant nightmares? Stevens answered that poets "help us to live our lives," and the best they have to give is a certain quality of nobility, which he defined as "a violence from within that protects us from a violence without." That phrase captures the phenomenal power of the Philharmonic's German Requiem, which also involved Thomas Hampson, Heidi Grant Murphy, the New York Choral Artists, and the American Boychoir, all under the direction of Kurt Masur. This was no refuge of melancholy, no place of sorrow and self-pity. You were aware at all times of the life force in the music—its steady drones and syncopated pulses, its bursts of anger, its consoling warmth.
Brahms's Requiem is German in the same sense that Luther's Bible is German: it was intended not for the élite but for the masses, and it was dedicated chiefly to the living. In the opening movement, "Blessed are they that mourn," there was a sense that the chorus was singing as much for itself as for the audience. Hampson sang magnificently, with a welcome lack of pretense. Masur, who is beginning his final season with the orchestra, chose tempos so unerringly natural that he almost removed himself from the picture. Before the performance started, he stood with the immobility of an honor guard, declining to acknowledge the audience. He was, in that moment, absolutely noble.
The week ended with the Met's World Trade Center benefit, and by then musical life seemed ready to return to normal. Three acts of three Verdi operas were presented; stars of various sizes shuffled on and off; Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu cancelled; Plácido Domingo brought the house down. But this performance, too, was different. It was more casual than the average evening at the Met, and also several degrees more tense. Nothing was quite routine. The curtain went up to reveal, in place of the set of Act I of Un ballo in maschera, the Met chorus, looking out expectantly. In their midst were the company's general manager, Joseph Volpe, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Everyone sang "The Star-Spangled Banner," and the Mayor received an ovation worthy of Caruso. At City Opera, too, before a trenchant performance of The Flying Dutchman, the entire company sang the anthem onstage, including stagehands in tank tops. These collective curtain calls broke the illusion of the spectacle but also seemed to affirm the underlying social contract. Indulge us, they said, as we divert you for a while.
After a harrowing Act III of Otello, I left my seat and watched the remainder of the performance on the Lincoln Center plaza, where the proceedings were being shown on a large screen to a non-paying crowd of several thousand people. Couples out for late-night walks were pulled off Broadway by the strains of Rigoletto, Act III. The image was crisp, the sound clear. The citadel of opera had never seemed more open, more part of the life of New York; perhaps the Met will make a tradition of bringing opera into the plaza. We should try to hold on to the sense of urgency that music has found in this bitter time.