Echoes of Humanity Through Music



Jarring sounds of screechy violins do not usually come to mind when listening to classical music.  However, ever since the violent premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, which gave a vital thrust of modernity to western art music, composers have been remarkably adventurous and gutsy in conveying concepts and messages in unheard of ways. Whether employing the wailing of police sirens or layering different transmissions of radios all at once, new instruments and inventive performance practices still continue to rouse the curiosity of audiences.
Sentiments regarding world affairs have naturally tread their way onto the acoustic canvas of concert halls too, helping to attract attention towards social and political issues of the day. And some of these works also implement unconventional methods to communicate their composer’s intentions. Among so-called avant-garde compositions that exhibit intense, emotionally-charged expressions relating the trials of humanity include George Crumb’s Black Angels and Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.

Crumb did not initially intend Black Angels to serve as any sort of political message, but the time he wrote the piece simply happen to be during the Vietnam War. Americans grew weary of the atrocities of ongoing bloodshed as each year passed by, and media along with popular culture eventually became outlets of frustration. The composer, finding an occasion to resound with the majority of public opinion, contributed Black Angels as a fitting work to correspond with the conquest of death for so many involved in the war. Here’s an exciting excerpt:


A decade before Crumb’s work, Penderecki offered an aural testament to the calamity of nuclear bombing. In Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, the Polish composer aimed to capture the despair and misery of those who were met with brutal obliteration. Having himself been scarred by terrible childhood memories of Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II, Penderecki drew from his own soul the torments of death and trepidation, which naturally channeled inspiration to his darkly haunting composition. Both World War II and the Vietnam War were well apart in time and place, yet Penderecki saw that his personal recollection resonated with the Japanese who were ensnared by wartime persecution.


Music is undoubtedly a powerful and universal language capable of imparting reflections of humanity. Evocations of human suffering and the tragedy of war such as Crumb’s Black Angels and Penderecki’s musical threnody are no doubt deeply impressed on listening ears. The morbidity of war as represented in music should lead audiences to reflect on the value of life and recognize the worthiness of each person. Music can make an impact, providing a moving and sometimes transcendental experience with an enduring consideration for human dignity – hoping that we all unite against political injustice and the devastation of massacre.

By Edward Ablang, an intern in the WYA North America Office

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