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Life in the time of Covid-19

Life in the time of Covid-19

Hanging out, or in quarantine?

I have been watching the development of Covid-19 from the very beginning. I watched it spread, like a slow-motion hurricane. Then suddenly, it hit. I saw all my work disappear. Within 24 hours everything was gone for the month of March and April. No performances, no teaching, no nothing. Nothing except anxiety about the disease, the unknown nature of the virus, the concern if both me and my partner got sick at the same time. The schools were also, which meant no childcare for my kid. It felt like the foundation of my life disappeared, and it has taken a little bit to get used to the “new normal.” The canceling of one of my concerts was particularly painful; it was a chamber music project for the early music festival here in Cologne. I spent many hours working out proposals, finding people, etc. etc. Then, just like that, it was gone. I am not alone in this loss. I watched in disbelief as my friend’s and colleague’s concerts were canceled or delayed because of Codiv-19. So many creative projects down the drain. Gone. It was also hard to watch everyone lose their work in a blink of an eye. Projects that were years in the making, gone. Granted the decision to cancel the concerts was the best option, saving lives is more important than a concert.

Dr Schnabel: the outfit plague doctors wore in 17th
century Rome

So here we are, we the people who are considered non-essential workers, sitting at home in social distancing or quarantine. The word quarantine comes from the Italian quaranta giorni, which means 40 days. During the 14th century, ships arriving in Venice had to wait outside the city for 40 days during bouts of the plague. The 40 days is most likely a reference to the 40 days of lent, which is ironically the exact time in which we find ourselves. Having to social distance is nothing new; our history is peppered with times like these, but never on such a large scale as today. We are very fortunate that in our society, most of our infectious diseases now have vaccines and that we in the western world have access to them (most, definitely not all); and in normal times we don’t have to be concerned with a lot of diseases that plagued (sorry) our ancestors. (It’s funny, I haven’t heard much from anti-vaxers these days…)

In times of trouble, we musicians have soldiered on as well as we can. Some of us will get sick and maybe even die; the rest of us will try to keep ourselves busy and/or entertained. It’s a strange dichotomy, boredom or death. I feel an Eddie Izzard quote coming on. Boredom or death? Boredom or death? (apologies to those who don’t know the works of Eddie Izzard, change that, no apologies, go forth and youtube) If you have kids boredom is not the problem, but rather finding enough time for everything. Thankfully my partner and I can split the day so that we have some uninterrupted time, boredom has not been a problem. If anyone out there is bored, I can ship my dynamic four years old to you and bored you will longer be.

The creativity that has arisen on social-media platforms has been inspiring. Live stream concerts are offered online by those who have the right instruments available or happen to be in quarantine with another musician. If you are alone or quarantined with a non-musician buddy, a different option seems to be a multi-screen performance. For the rest of us who have no technical prowess or any extra energy (see the note above about kids), might I recommend creative drinking?

Fanny Hensel: sketch by her husband

There are many examples of performers and composers from the past who were limited, inspired, or killed by infectious diseases. In 1831 the composer Fanny Hensel wrote a piece Cantate für die Toten der Cholera-Epidemie, a piece that was unfortunately only performed for the first in 1984. Gaetano Donizetti got stuck in a cholera quarantine in 1854. Frederic Chopin famously died of tuberculosis. My grandmother showed me the movie “about” Chopin when I was a kid, A Song to Remember. Chopin was so “dedicated” to his art that he continued to perform as he was dying of tuberculosis, blood from his lungs falling on the keyboard as he played. This movie was quite influential on me, and it took me some time to realize that no one needs to suffer for one’s art. Additionally, Igor Stravinsky’s (generally not a composer considered in the historical performance field) wife, daughter, and mother all died of tuberculosis in the years 1938-39. There are many more examples, but then this short article threatens to become a scholarly article, and we can’t have that, so I will stop there with examples.

This pandemic has changed our world and will continue to change it. It fills me with a lot of anxiety and worry, and I know I am not alone. As a freelancer, I rely on people being able to pay for and come to concerts, and who knows when this will be possible. Plus, since codiv-19 kills mostly old people, well there goes our audience members… This virus and the surrounding problems could last, on some level or another, for years. Large gatherings could be canceled once again, or people are simply afraid of going out. I hope that everyone finds their way through this time with as little anxiety as possible, and with enough food in your bellies, cash in your accounts, and with as little sickness as possible.

A couple of links:

Performance of Fanny Hensel’s work can be found here.

Short article in German about Hensel and Cholera here.

Article “Epidemics from Plague to Coronavirus” here.

Article “Music in the Time of Cholera: Fanny’s Cantatas” here.

An interesting about the history of quarantine in Italy here.


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