Several years ago, Karl Paulnack, Director of the Boston Conservatory, gave a speech to the parents of that year’s incoming freshman class. He shared the story of French composer Olivier Messiaen’s masterpiece, Quartet for the End of Time. This piece was composed in the midst of World War II, when Messiaen was imprisoned in a concentration camp. The first performance was in 1941, in the camp, to an audience of 4,000 prisoners and guards.
Paulnack poses the question, “Why, in the midst of such desperate and dire circumstances, would someone be making music?” He writes:
“And yet—from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”
We’ve been seeing this play out around the world now. In this time of separation, people are making music, creating art, and sending beauty into the world. They are singing from balconies and giving concerts from their driveways. They are posting poetry and artwork on social media. These are reminders of our shared humanity, and messages of hope.
In this time of isolation and social-distancing, I know that so many of us are grieving the loss of communal singing. We can’t gather to worship together, to sing together. St. Peter’s Choir meets weekly by Zoom to check in with each other. It’s an important and meaningful time, but it doesn’t lessen the loss of our weekly rehearsals and Sunday ministry. I share those feelings of loss and grief.
But, music is there. It is always there. It is still there. And on the other side of this, it will be there waiting for us. We will sing together again. And what a day that will be. As we wait for that day to come, I hope that we will all continue to seek out those things that feed our souls. They are more important now than ever.
Elizabeth Lenti, Director of Music and Organist