Nine Eleven and a Tombeau

Jonathan Bellman

I know there have been a variety of musical reactions to 9-11-01. For me, one that strikes a great resonance is the Third Symphony of Stephen Hartke, on fragmentary 8th-9th century Anglo-Saxon poetry, translated and adapted by the composer. (Information on the piece can be found here.) As the composer points out, though the poet is witness to ancient ruins (perhaps Bath? In any case, a bath is mentioned), it is the vibrancy of the ancient people that is celebrated, even in the midst of their ruins. Absent is the irony of, say, Shelley’s Ozymandias.

There is something so evocative (to me, at least) about the English ethos of long ago: the verbal economy (I’m thinking of the Middle English song “Foweles in the Frith” here), the musical means (the aforementioned and the Marian song “Edi beo thu”), the glimmers of wit and laser-accurate perception that flicker through from more than a millennium ago. For a contemporary composer to capture the antique English deftness seems miraculous.

Hartke’s setting is apt for the powerful text, somewhat understated but in no way lacking in power or eloquence. It is an appropriate tombeau to the horrific injury and loss we suffered five years ago. Perhaps that is the power of the archaic as a poetic, musical, or artistic trope; it can remind us, on an aesthetic level, that some things in the present deserve liberation from the background noise of the everyday. They merit something greater than to be drowned out by quotidian chatter, the shared fate of everything: for them, a long echo and full decay. Touches of the idiom of the distant past provide that as few other things can.

Recommended: a soft, personal Kaddish or Requiem.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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