I had promised myself that this Between Sundays column would NOT be about music — but then… Ukraine. Well actually, it is only about music in a peripheral sense, really. Except that the link between nationalist and/or patriotic songs and music in a time of war can undoubtedly be, profound.
Like many of you, I have been glued to the news (internet, newspaper sources, television, etc… ) for the last few weeks as this crisis has unfolded, and become a humanitarian disaster. I have been especially moved by first-person interviews with Ukrainian citizens most affected by an unprovoked war, as they huddle together, pray and attempt to wait out the conflict. The internet and modern video technology make it possible for those of us thousands of miles way to witness up close the anguish, heartache, pain AND anger of those whose heartland is being occupied and invaded, and/or those who feel that their only choice is to flee their beloved country.
One of the privileges of being a professional musician means that I have met, interacted AND performed with other musicians of many different nationalities — from all corners of the globe. While I knew that I had, maybe at least a half-dozen Ukrainian Facebook musician friends… I wasn’t prepared that there were so many more. A number of musicians I know have Slavic backgrounds, but I wasn’t aware they were native Ukrainians or had spent considerable time in Ukraine as professional artists in one capacity or another. My heart goes out to these folks as I read their posts, and they express sadness and fear for their current reality.
I also have Russian Facebook friends that are either horrified by their country’s decisions, as well as some who justify the occupation, as difficult as that is to fathom. While I have not blocked these folks from my Facebook friends list, I HAVE often chosen to hide their posts because of the content. You may have also read about some high-profile Russian artists resigning from their national artistic posts in protest, as well as the firing of a one particularly prominent Russian conductor with kindred ties to Putin.
For me, perhaps the most profoundly moving and simultaneously heartbreaking experiences from the last couple weeks have been videos of singing, of all kinds. Several of my Ukrainian musical friends have posted videos of themselves singing national songs, and you may have seen an early video from last week of a young woman singing the Ukrainian national anthem as she swept up broken glass in her home — the result of a bomb strike:
That these people turn to music for fortitude, strength and comfort in a time of great challenge and hardship is striking. Even SNL (Saturday Night Live) stepped outside of its usual Cold Open content by inviting a Ukrainian choir from New York to open its show last Saturday evening. It was a very touching moment that you can view here:
The Metropolitan Opera also had its chorus open a recent new production of Verdi’s Don Carlo with the Ukrainian anthem, and it was powerfully moving:
And this beautiful cello choir:
These are just a few of the most significant videos I have seen, as I’m sure that many more examples abound. While no performance of any piece of music can create an immediate cease fire or cessation of horrific events, it DOES go a long way to fostering both fortitude and solidarity in times of great stress and tragedy. Even the small act of UUCC singing Sibelius’ Finlandia (This is My Song; SLT #159) at the beginning of last Sunday’s worship service was both poignant and meaningful.
These seemingly small, yet profound artistic testaments exhibit the deep power of music to heal, strengthen, and help summon a courageous response during dark times, when mere words will not really suffice. While I hope you will join me in sending these musical payers to the Ukrainian people, perhaps they have much to teach US about peace, resilience, and strength.