As I announced last Friday I’ve made some temporary changes to ideasaboutmusic.ca under the unusual circumstance of self-imposed lockdown in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Of most significance to this weekly blog post is that it is now temporarily detached from the Sunday Service music of Rosedale Presbyterian Church in Toronto because, well, there are no Sunday services there. RPC’s Sunday worship ministry now consists of a set of materials distributed each Friday by the staff for the informational and devotional use of the congregation, including from me a special weekly 30-minute episode of Choral View Radio offering hymns, anthems, organ music and commentary – it is there, in spoken form, that you may find the nearest facsimile of the former RPC Music Notes – because again, there are currently no Sunday Bulletins to print them in.
In the past week of quarantine-based thinking and living, the online world of we unemployed, homebound musicians has virtually exploded with an entirely new genre of music-making… or is it entirely new?
While I’ve been throwing myself into homemade guerilla radio-like podcasts, in the past few days I have been contacted by an old university friend, Dave Kutz, who is currently Principal Tuba to the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, to collaborate online with he and a cellist friend who resides in Australia. On the suggestion of a member of Rosedale Presbyterian Church I and one of the church’s soprano soloists Rebecca Genge scraped together, from our respective homes, a rendition of the storied opera aria Bist du bei Mir by Heinrich Stötzel (which you might, along with many others, understandably think to be a sacred song by Johann Sebastian Bach). I see choirs, including Chorus Niagara and the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus holding proto-rehearsals over video conferencing software platforms like Zoom and Skype, and the much better-tested (and better-suited) giving of one-on-one video music lessons, complete with household noises, pets walking by, sweatpants and unshaven beards. And perhaps most intriguing of all, we are seeing good-spirited daily compositional challenges – “fill your time by creating new music,” be that an original fiddle tune, a song about your experience, or that symphony you’ve never quite gotten around to writing.
Going beyond the fascination of seeing friends, colleagues, choristers and for that matter strangers in their natural habitats, for a professional musician there is something deeply humanising about sharing the imposed regime that is being variously called quarantine, self-isolation, social distancing, and shelter-in-place.
But it also reminds me that amid all of the impressive technology that simply didn’t exist a short decade ago, there is, ironically, a much older story being retold. The German term Hausmusik (‘house music’, a term we wouldn’t typically use in English) was in standard use in the late 18th century as the post-baroque rise of the middle class spurred families and friends to share music, sung or played, in their homes. The piano lay, and remained at the centre of this movement for a century and a half before the advent of recording and broadcasting, and the decline of institutionalised music education gradually shifted music-making into music-listening, and transformed the broadly-held urge and ability to play and sing into an anointed ‘priesthood’ increasingly conferred only upon celebrities and professionals.
Of course the images in my Facebook Feed of music at home are showing me something that existed before; we all practise, teach and sometimes even play or sing together in our homes – always have. But the unexpected explosion of sharing gives me another to add to the positive outcomes some hope of this pandemic such as environmental healing, the re-decline of incompetent and ignorant populism, socialised wealth-redistribution and the retooled non-fossil-fuel energy infrastructure our planet so desperately needs. That hope is for music in the home; music in the heart.