A friend has sent me (in the post!) Richard Morrison’s excellent Times article from April 3: ‘Note to artists: it’s not a sign of weakness to be unable to work now.’ This is the link, but The Times is behind a paywall so you can only read it if you’re a subscriber.
Richard Morrison says there’s an assumption that times of crisis will produce outstanding artwork. But over the centuries, many artists felt unable to work in a time of major upheaval, be it war, plague, bereavement or exile. They found themselves incapable of creative thought. In some cases they did go on to produce great work, but only once they had had time to digest what had happened to them – which sometimes took years.
In the present coronavirus crisis, some musicians have risen instantly to the challenge, streaming concerts from their living-rooms and the like. I admire them. Many listeners, stuck indoors, are enjoying their performances. But, as Morrison says, not everyone reacts to the situation by feeling more energetic. ‘Let’s acknowledge the hiatus for what it is’, he writes. ‘Not a surprise holiday, but a massive shock to our routine that is likely to be traumatic for many. And the one thing that the history of art, music and literature teaches us about traumatic disruptions is that, although in the long term they may trigger creative work, in the short term they crush any impulse to create anything.’
This is undoubtedly true for many of us. Most musicians are collaborative, playing in chamber groups, ensembles, bands, orchestras. We are accustomed to using not only our ears but all our senses to make music. We are used to being immersed in – and animated by – soundwaves produced by musicians playing together in the same space. The sudden loss of live music-making has left us feeling depleted.
Recently I’ve found myself thinking of a gifted musician I knew, who died of leukaemia. After one of his spells in hospital he told me that when he was ill, he didn’t feel like listening to music at all. Love of music was something he felt reviving when he was getting better. It was almost as though the appetite for music went hand in hand with the degree of health.
I’m lucky not to have had much experience of hospital, but once when I was in hospital for a fortnight (India, paratyphoid) I wasn’t interested in music for most of the time. It was only when I was on the mend that I reached for the cassette player which someone had brought me and put in the one tape I had, of Heifetz playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto. How lovely it was! It’s still associated in my mind with that special feeling of a returning interest in the outside world.