To the Music Makers – Hope!

Does life imitate art, or the reverse? Does art in fact do both? Certainly art, good art, chronicles, memorializes, interprets, critiques, amplifies and inspires life in all respects. Consider how art in its myriad forms has expressed the shock and fury of us all through these early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Consider how art mobilized us at other times through world and civil wars, through human and ecological rights struggles throughout Southern Africa, Central and South America and in the Indian subcontinent. Think how art expresses and documents the oppressive experience of Indigenous persons, communities and First Nations globally. Art plays a vital role in what might be called (with Paulo Friere) the Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Sharpening the focus to the musical arts I have in recent days been collecting beautiful and emotive pieces of music, pieces which are fragments of a much larger collection of expressions of human will and divine strength. I was encouraged to write following Dean Robert’s mention of a poem by Arthur O’Shaughnessy. *From Wikipedia) Born in London, Arthur O’Shaughnessy worked in the Zoology Department of the British Museum, where he became an expert in herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles. By age 30, he had published three collections of poetry, including Music and Moonlight, which contained his inspiring poem “Ode” (1874). It reads in part:

We are the music makers,
    And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
    And sitting by desolate streams; —
World-losers and world-forsakers,
    On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
    Of the world for ever, it seems.

Now who might these “movers and shakers be?” I would normally suggest political, social, economic, philosophic or theological leaders. O’Shaughnessy suggests otherwise, that in and through music, a great power of expression, even influence persists. Not only does music transcend generations (much more effectively than the spoken word), but it also bridges nations and cultures well. How many times might I listen to the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto; how many times has amazing Grace appeared at a funeral; and at my own funeral there must be Edward Elgar’s Nimrod please. Just not next week; I have quite a number of events planned. Admittedly, O’Shaughnessy’s second verse gives very serious cause for pause given the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities,
    And out of a fabulous story
    We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
    Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
    Can trample a kingdom down.  (Emphasis added)

Speaking of the attempted trampling of a kingdom/nation, the indefatigable spirit of Ukrainians is duly and impressively noted, I suspect that everyone was moved by the singing from a bunker of a six-year old girl, who belted out with both a smile and confidence a song from the Disney film Frozen. Lines from “Let It Go” include:

I don’t care
What they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway!
. . .

Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway!

When I first watched the translation I thought it was composed for the occasion. I can only imagine hearing such words enthusiastically and innocently proclaimed amongst bomb blasts, shaking ground, dimming lights amongst the sights and sounds of fear-filled refugees of all ages. She and others are now thankfully safe in Poland, yearning to return to what might be left of their home and homeland.

Speaking of bombs, blasts and fear, another amazing musical offering recently moved me to tears. Ukrainian violinist Ilya Bondarenko had to shoot a bunker video between explosions because he couldn’t hear his playing. He performed the Ukrainian folk song “Willow Board” (Вербова дощечка).

The willowood plank, plank,
Near my little bridge, bridge.
In the field it lies, it lies,
When will my love come by, come by?

When will my love come by, come by?
What will he bring to me, bring to me?
Red boots, boots,
For better work, work. 

Kerenza Pikok tells the story. The sixteenth day of the Russian invasion. The first strikes on the Dnieper, but we would be lying if we said that we were not ready for this. During this period, any support is important for Ukraine, and raising morale is of great importance.

“94 musicians from 29 countries performed the Ukrainian folk song “Willow Plank” – and it’s amazingly beautiful! In her Instagram, the violinist spoke about the initiative, which was attended by musicians from all over the world. They were joined by the violin section of the Munich Chamber Orchestra, musicians from the London and Tokyo Symphony Orchestras, the Oslo Philharmonic, Hollywood Studios, as well as the best violinists from all over the world – Ireland, the Netherlands. South Africa, Moldova, Denmark, India.”

She continues: I made friends with some young violinists in Ukraine through Instagram and found out that some of them are in basement hideouts, but with their own violins. Therefore, I asked colleagues from all over the world to accompany them in harmony. And they sent me videos from 94 violinists from 29 countries. In 48 hours!! An amazing collaboration in creating an international violin choir in support of Ukraine. Ukrainian violinist Ilya Bondarenko had to shoot a video between explosions because he couldn’t hear his playing.

There are times when music is so much more than an assembly of notes on a staff, notes technically rendered in sonic space and timely instruments including the human voice, interpreted with both intention and skill, in a particular context and shared through any number of media. This is one of those times when music embodies the stubborn resistance of Ukrainians, drawing on their spirituality and history. This music thrives, as the  infrastructure and architecture above the bunkers is destroyed and obliterated.

This is one of those times, known throughout the world in places such as Northern Ireland, South Africa, the historic slave states, the Caribbean and throughout South America in recent centuries, when everything seems bleak, yet music helps the spirit not only to survive, but to thrive, as apart from physical death, these mighty voices will never cease their song. Tacet? Never!

May we all find courage and inspiration to find our own voices amidst the circumstances of our own lives and communities, life as we engage it,  inspired by hope, which in the Ukrainian leaders and people, will never die. For such, Putin has no weapons.

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