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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

While it might be a slight exaggeration to say that classical music keeps me fully functional during this ongoing Twilight Zone experience of COVID-19, it does play a vital role in keeping my small ship upright.

I am not a stranger to this genre and it has been part of the soundtrack of my life. My father loved classical music and so played it constantly. Dad loved opera, in particular the works of Richard Wagner, which could be considered the death metal of the classical world. I spent my adolescence being bombarded by the Ring Cycle, with Wotan, Siegfried and Brunnhilde, being played night and day. My response to this was to retreat to my room and counter with Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. While the combination of Wagner and acid rock was, I thought, quite extraordinary, my father and I both discovered that my mother’s patience was not endless. But it did affect my attitude to most opera, which sadly remains to this day, even after decades of being married to a classical singer.

But I have always enjoyed a smattering of Bach and from time to time, a taste for some Mozart or Sibelius. But it was more on the edges of my musical tastes, rather than being front and centre – until COVID-19 hit.

At first, like all of us in the “before times,” I was sure the changes in routine were just going to last a few weeks. So, like many of you, I made sourdough bread and watched Tiger King on Netflix. But it didn’t end in a few weeks or even a few months. There is, as of this day, no end in sight and we have collectively lost a whole way of life. Things like the ease of having friends over, meeting someone for coffee or going out to dinner and a movie or to the theatre or a concert.

The church I serve closed for in-person worship and I suddenly discovered that we had to immediately shift every part of our ministry online and have done so for months. We now realize that online is here to stay and will be with us even in the “After Times.”

It was during this extremely stressful period, when I was working non-stop, that I noticed I could no longer listen to the constant stream of bad news. From the television to the radio to online feeds, it was a barrage of doom and gloom. I realized that I just couldn’t keep listening to it, it was simply more than I could handle. That’s when I migrated back to classical music. I started listening to it on my phone, I downloaded more and different albums and found it on the radio. Not only did I find that it acted as a soothing antidote to the stress and negativity of the pandemic, I discovered it engaged me and I listened, maybe for the first time; I really listened.

Have you ever heard Beethoven’s 9th Symphony? It’s extraordinary and if you listen to the last movement, along with the choir, soloists and full orchestra you will hear a triangle being played. Think about that for a moment: Beethoven wrote the 9th Symphony when he was completely deaf, he wrote all the choral and solo parts and the parts for the orchestra. Yet in his head, he thought: “it’s not complete without the sound of a triangle.” This massive work needs that tiny tinkle of a triangle to be fully realized! It is amazing to hear that and think of his creative process. It’s like Van Gogh painting while blind; I find it breathtaking.

And that’s what has captured me, the layers and complexity of classical music. It’s the amazing combination of disparate instruments brought together to tell us a story in music. Each composer is so different, each has their own signature, both the old and the new composers, they bring us music that engages mind and heart together.

In the midst of the noise of loss that we are all experiencing, I have found a place to go that actually helps to ground me so I can thrive in a challenging environment.

Classical music surrounds me now, all during the day and before I sleep. No matter the news of the latest catastrophe, this music helps me through it so I am never overwhelmed by grief or anxiety.

If there is a group of people who have paid a price during this pandemic, it is musicians, but especially the ones who play for ensembles and orchestras and, of course, the classical singers. They have watched their livelihoods disappear overnight and have had to adapt on the fly to a very different world. While we have obsessed about the millionaires and billionaires in professional sports, these creative artists get nary a mention. I would argue that the value they give for the modest livings they make, are of equal, if not more value to our society than most professional sports.

So I want to thank them all and the composers who still create this special type of magic. Keep playing, it is helping more people get through these troubled times than you will ever know.

Christopher White lives in Whitby, Ont.

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