by Brooks Riley
1. As the coronavirus continues to disrupt human life in many corners of the globe, a phrase from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah has wormed its way through the background noise of my attention span. It occurs in a Part III recitative usually sung by a bass with enough gravitas to shake the earth as well as the listener.
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. . .
That mystery is now upon us, the mystery of how our world has changed ‘in the twinkling of an eye’—from rapacious consumerism to the maintenance of bare necessities, from globalization to localization and isolation, from ‘out and about’ to ‘home alone’—all because of a pathogen that reaches you faster than a package from Amazon.
. . .and we shall be changed. This is the phrase that dominates the aria following that recitative. The repetitions and soaring musical variations of this line, like a deluge of mantras, suggest an epiphany that will be undeniable, invoking secular salvation through long-term permanent change. The question now is, can we rebuild the world anew when this coronavirus crisis is over? Shall we be changed? More importantly, shall we change? And if we do, will it be for the better?
No self-respecting atheist would call the coronavirus divine retribution but its timing is eerily prescient: With the sudden reduction in air pollution and other rampant ongoing abuses of the planet, it seems as if Nature itself has stepped in to stop us in our tracks before it’s too late. If nothing else, this catastrophe will give the Earth a temporary reprieve from the insults of human progress. And it will provide nearly all of the earth’s population enough downtime to reexamine our priorities. Wildlife is returning to Venice, air quality over Chinese cities is vastly improved, the birds can hear themselves sing again, and Spring marches on undeterred by the miseries of mankind.
The Messiah is the last vestige of an Episcopalian upbringing I left behind long ago. I customarily listen to it each Christmas season as a mood elevator or spiritual fix, nothing more, never tiring of the sublime music and the impact of the fiery libretto as Handel forged it into music. As a teenager I sang in the chorus. My father sang the tenor solos well into his 70’s. At school, the music teacher told us that Handel was manic-depressive, and that he wrote the Messiah in three weeks, in the manic phase. I remember exactly where I was sitting when I heard this and thought “How enviable to have a manic phase, if this is what comes out of it.”
But nowhere have I loved the Messiah more than in the brilliant staging by Claus Guth at Theater an der Wien. The phenomenal Arnold Schönberg Chor and a cast including Bejun Mehta bring to it a story of love and death and transfiguration that raises this oratorio to another dimension of musical experience altogether. With so much time in lockdown now, this is a luxury you won’t have to miss.
2. Like the Messiah, Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung has been a recurring soundtrack in my life. No other work of music has touched me so profoundly. To this day, I burst into tears near the end of Die Walküre, in the moments of reconciliation between the god Wotan and his errant daughter Brünnhilde, trapped inside the complicated psychology implied by this event. I am not alone. I once ran into Susan Sontag in the ladies’ room at the Met, crying over the same exact moment.
If you don’t have 16+ hours to devote to the Ring, then give a listen to the final moments of Götterdämmerung. If you recognize what’s happening right now as the Twilight of the Wannabe Gods, you’ll share Wagner’s emerging pessimism as it is abetted by Schopenhauer. The conflagration that ends the world can be seen as a fitting destiny for a greedy, destructive and exploitative way of life. When the Rhine maidens get their ring back, Nature is once again in charge of things, as she will be after we are all gone.
These final 10 minutes of the Ring will throw a bagful of leitmotifs at those who know them well, and one of redemption that even first-timers cannot miss. One reason this work endures and resonates is that it is always open to interpretation. In the Nationaltheater Weimar production of the Ring, director Michael Schulz chose a cleansing rainfall instead of fire at the end, to suggest that we mortals will be cleansed of the past and live to face another day. How relevant is that?
3. On a lighter note, what could be more infectious than Ray Charles singing Yes, Indeed, a classic piece of rock ‘n roll to force you to get up from that sofa and try some cool moves to combat lockdown lethargy. This number is deceptively simple: Although it’s ostensibly about rock ‘n roll, ‘yes, indeed’ has become my go-to expression for almost anything that leaves me speechless with joy. It’s the ultimate line for aesthetic gratification. Enough said.
4. Hey, girl, a Korean rap song from 2000, sung by Jang Hyuk. This is what I would call whisper rap, muted sounds rather than words, at least to ears that don’t understand Korean. But that makes it more compelling—a hypnotic abstraction. The masked dancers’ exuberant energy, like that of today’s BTS, reminds us of carefree times at a time when nothing is carefree anymore. Twenty years on Jang Hyuk is one of Korea’s finest actors, as seen in this long-awaited moment of revenge in the series Money Flower. Forget subtitles, just study the moves—hate has never looked this good. For those no longer permitted to travel anywhere, I recommend a trip to South Korea via Netflix. Chief of Staff, Haechi, Stranger, Bad Guys Vile City, Voice, Designated Survivor: 60 Days, Mr. Sunshine, Whisper, Vagabond, Misaeng are all binge-worthy series to fill the endless days of social deprivation. I’ve ‘been’ in Korea for months now and I’m never coming home.
5. But I am at home, at home to the reality of events beyond my wildest imagination a few weeks ago. I think of those who have lost the fight, and those who will lose it in the coming months. It is Franz Schubert who sets the tone like no other. To borrow from the Messiah, Schubert was ‘acquainted with grief.’ He could see death coming and wrote accordingly, turning out the mature masterpieces of an eminence grise at the tender age of thirty. And yet the Litanei D 343 comes early in his career, long before any signs of the syphilis that would kill him. Its message is simple: All souls, rest in peace. This version, sung by the great bass-baritone Matthias Goerne, is slower than most versions I know, but no less moving.
6. And finally, a song to override all the fear and loathing of our newly interrupted lives. Richard Strauss wrote Morgen! in 1894 as a gift to his future wife. That first line is almost all we need to feel a surge of hope and optimism that all will be well, if only in the assumed continuity of yet another sunny day. John Henry Mackay, a German anarchist of Scottish descent wrote the words to this and other songs by Strauss and by Arnold Schönberg. Reading them in the light of our indefinite lockdown, one can almost palpably feel the relief of eventually walking out into the world again to greet each other without fear.
And tomorrow the sun will shine again
And on the way which I shall follow
She will again unite us lucky ones
As all around us the earth breathes in the sun
Slowly, silently, we will climb down
To the wide beach and the blue waves
In silence, we will look in each other’s eyes
And the mute stillness of happiness will sink upon us.