Finding Solace in Music

When John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, I went to the Rice library and listened to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3. The funeral march in that work, like the funeral march in Beethoven’s Opus 26 Piano Sonata, which I learned 15 years later, became my go-to pieces when the world went mad. Last Sunday, December 16, was Beethoven’s birthday, always a special day in our household. I thought his music would again be my solace after the shootings in Connecticut. But trying to listen to Beethoven Sonatas on the car radio on the way to Florida with Steve the next day failed to soothe. Beethoven’s dynamics could not compete with I-95 road noise.

Instead, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with their intricacies so masterfully played by Glenn Gould, penetrated both noise and gloom and reminded us that human beings can recover from immense sorrow and proceed to amazing creativity. Bach had 20 children, of whom only 10 survived to adulthood. Yet after his first wife and so many children died, he found the strength to return to composing brilliantly. In his enduring works, I find hope.

Then I picked up the Washington Post we brought along. Phillip Kennicott, an art and architecture critic whom I greatly respect, wrote: “I think seeking consolation during a tragedy that hasn’t directly affected you is histrionic, and a bad form of sentimentality, and it distracts from urgent and obvious feelings of anger and political determination. Rather than seek solace, we should work to change the society in ways that will help prevent this kind of mayhem. But if one needs some form of distraction, then anything that is dense and polyphonic, because this kind of music reminds us that we can fashion the world in new and better ways, that we aren’t powerless and at the mercy of a flawed society. Perhaps Bach’s Mass in B Minor.”

Okay, Mr. Kennicott. I’ve found solace. Now I’m angry and determined to take action to try to influence public policy on controlling guns and improving access to mental health care.

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