For musicians, the phrase “fiddling while Rome burns” must come frequently to mind during dark times. But is making music really trivial or irresponsible, as the phrase indicates, in the midst of suffering? It is perhaps self-centered of me to think not, but to the contrary, I believe the arts – and especially music – takes on an even greater importance when the world seems like it is crashing around us. During 2020, so many things are so dreadfully wrong: the coronavirus pandemic, the dangerous sickness that has soaked into the bones of half of the American electorate, the replacement of certainty in knowledge and facts with fantasy and conspiracy theories, the relentless poison of racism in American society, humanity’s steady march towards environmental catastrophe. And yes, when I write that list, the image of Nero and his fiddle do come to mind. Am I irresponsible for spending so much time composing new music in the midst of all this?
Then, I remind myself of the delight and surprise I felt upon first discovering that an exquisite musical gem by Poulanc, his Trois Mouvements Perpetuel, was composed in 1918, while he was in military service and the flu epidemic was raging. There is nothing in the music to suggest the trauma of the world events swirling around him as he wrote it. It is entirely free of grief or anxiety. As terrible as those events were at the time, I realized he understood something profound. The music would last. The terrors of the time would not. Rather than be swayed by events, he kept the longer game in mind, and remained true to his purpose, creating beauty that would be appreciated by so many people, down through the ages, for whom the “news” of his day would be at best, a distant memory, if remembered at all. While there are many actions I can and do take in response to today’s world, I keep Poulanc’s musical reminder in the forefront of my thoughts and keep to my purpose, writing music that is as beautiful as I have the power in me to create.