Is music really ‘our reply to violence’?

The pianist Boris Giltburg thought long and hard about the hackneyed Leonard Bernstein platitude that gets trotted out by music leaders and on mass media every time civilisation comes under mortal attack.

bernstein quote


Boris’s conclusion: ‘Music, and any art, by the very fact of creating, of bringing something new into the world, is in opposition to any force which comes to kill, destroy and terrorise.’ Read his reasoned argument here, far more cogent than the blethering of the general commentariat.

Boris’s response, as a pianist, was to play a chaconne, ‘a funeral dance of Spanish origin, which several classical composers have turned to in order to express their thoughts on death.’ But not necessarily the obvious ones.

Listen here.

And here.
boris giltburg

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  • Music has always been a source of comfort, to ease pain, the calm loss, to uplift, to be excited by, to celebrate with and to bind people together no matter who they are and where they come from. One example is Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” which has become the piece of choice in times of sadness and loss. It has been dubbed “The Saddest Piece of Music Ever Written.” But it is actually a confirmation of positive energy rather than one evoking the opposite, as Barber had intended. But we have made this piece a source of joining us together to grieve and find comfort together. No matter the composition, the language of music, with or without spoken or sung words, remains a universal connecting form of life which we often utilize to bring us together as human beings. Of course, there is wonderful music composed and performed throughout time, yet when humanity suffers through violence, war, and hatred, composers reach out with emotional responses to tragedy through their music, their voice, as a legacy not only for themselves and for their music, but for humanity to timelessly embrace during such times.

  • Music certainly is one important *reaction* to violence; as others have said, it can soothe, comfort, inspire, and give voice to our rage and grief. Bernstein’s beautiful quote speaks to these essential human needs.

    But it is a mistake to believe that music is a suitable *reply* or response.

    Those who value civilization–widespread peace, rich and varied culture, tolerance and diversity, a degree of material comfort, security and the rule of law–must also see the nature of violent threats such as those which struck Paris last week: savage nihilism.

    It makes intuitive sense to say we can win by creating–by replacing “nothing” with “something,” something beautiful.

    But it’s not enough. Ultimately, music will not win against this threat. It–and the other arts, and the other aspects of “civilization” listed above–will only survive if brave men and women confront the threat with equal or greater force.

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