In a year when the world has been assailed by pestilence, fire and flood, you might wonder when we are going to get the famine, boils, and plagues of locusts. Shakespeare was right: when sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions. It is, of course, the pandemic that has turned our lives upside down, in ways that can be hard to bear for any length of time. For many musicians the impact has been devastating – livelihoods and audiences gone, choirs and orchestras unable to meet, performance venues mothballed, and an uncertain future ahead with the likelihood that our profession will emerge shrunken and cash-starved.
Others have written eloquently of all this, but I do believe some positive things for music and musicians have emerged from the experience of the past few months, though I admit I can count them on not many fingers. First, we have discovered new ways for musicians to connect with each other and with their audiences. Virtual choirs have sprung up, attracting large numbers of amateur singers, some of whom have never sung in a choir before. I talked recently to the directors of one such choir, and they have been much moved by the messages of appreciation they have received from members who are (for example) housebound, disabled, living in remote places, unable to join a ‘normal’ choir because of irregular work patterns – or simply too shy to have come forward before. A virtual choir isn’t a replacement for a physical one, but it is a new star in the choral firmament, here to stay.
Livestreaming of concerts, recitals and church services is also here to stay. There’s nothing new, of course, in showing these events on television, but stripped of their sophisticated production values, there is an immediacy in a livestream from a musician’s front room which gives a different kind of pleasure. The CEO of a leading classical streaming platform said recently that their viewers especially appreciated the feeling of being brought closer to the performer if, for instance, a cat wanders across the screen halfway through a sonata. We all know that nothing beats the feeling of being present with others at a live concert, but a home concert if you can’t get out is still a blessing. These heartfelt offerings have necessarily been mostly small-scale, and I have heard more solo and chamber music in the last few months than for several whole years – an opportunity to revel in the beauty of an area of music it’s easy to overlook if your staple diet is mainly choral and orchestral music. Sometimes less is more.
An unexpected bonus of social distancing is that choirs and orchestras, forced to space their members further apart than before, are sounding wonderful, perhaps because they have to listen harder, perhaps also from gratitude at being in action once more. I have enjoyed some lovely sounds from spaced-out orchestras and choirs at the BBC Proms.
I’m not sure we will be travelling a straight and shining road back to musical normality – there may be bumps in that road and wrong turnings – but we, the musical community, must not be daunted. Our present travails are not for ever, there are mounting stocks of the safe and effective Oxford vaccine just waiting in their freezer for permission to use them, and we shall recover. I hope the most lasting legacy of 2020 for musicians and music-lovers will be that often short-lived emotion, gratitude. You don’t always fully appreciate a gift until it is taken away. Music is a great gift to us all, and we should cherish it.