Corona Music

Spring has been slow to come to Upstate New York. There have been snow flurries in April, and the yearned-for arrival of green in the landscape has been halting. Like the humans, the leaves seem afraid to enter the public sphere.

One of our daughters, Cecilia, is with us during the lockdown. She escaped the United Kingdom on March 14th hours ahead of Trump’s travel restrictions. Cecilia made it across the Atlantic just before gridlocked pandemonium broke out in American airports.

In order to report her safe arrival in the American homeland, we checked in with my in-laws back in London where she had stayed the night before heading to Heathrow. Even over Skype this bunch of staunch Brexiteers exuded worrying quantities of British glibness. They were blithely upper-lipping it, mocking the threat. Not only had they, it seemed to me, been goaded into that posture by their man, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but they’d also been trained (brainwashed?) for this sort of silver screen stoicism their entire lives. They were armed to take on the Corona invasion with reheated Finest Hour nostalgia, banding together in subway tunnels, cinemas, and double-decker buses. Little wonder, then, that within a week of Cecilia leaving her aunt and uncle’s house with her suitcase, the upper crust Royal Borough of Chelsea and South Kensington where they live registered the highest density of Covid-19 cases in the United Kingdom.

While Cecilia’s back in Ithaca, taking self-isolation in good part even if she’s outnumbered by her parents, we’ve been trying to make music together. She’s playing on a borrowed cello, her own instrument marooned back in lockdowned London: it’s too expensive, anyway, to buy an extra airplane seat for the thing.

I accompany her at a Viennese grand from 1875—a rosewood, ivory and ebony dreadnaught of colonialism. For all its visual and aural beauty, it’s a relatively cheap piano, maybe ten-percent the price of the similar modern model by Steinway. Once the entertainment, even the emotional, center of the middle-class family, the piano—especially the antique—is now increasingly treated like a junk car, more likely to be pitched into a landfill or cannablized, rather than treated as a sumptuous, sounding heirloom.

The seemingly non-stop Zooming sometimes prevents Cecilia and me from mustering the time or energy to play together, but aside from the intrinsic joy of making music, the act becomes a crucial way to give the days shape.

As Karol Berger argued in his magisterial 2007 book, Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow: An Essay on Musical Modernity, European classical music organizes time. As Berger’s title suggests, it was in the late eighteenth-century that musicians adopted forms that reflected industrializing society’s project to mark time with increasing efficiency and accuracy, and to transform history (and narrative musical strategies) into a forward-moving force, rather than one that continuously circling back on itself. God’s time was supplanted by human time.

The lockdown has pressed the pause button on time—and therefore on industry.

Cecilia and I recently played Schumann’s, Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces), op. 73, a three movement work from 1849 that exists in versions for clarinet or cello, with piano accompaniment. As that title also might suggest, this is music that begins in the middle of something, as if in the act of being overtaken by impassioned remembrances and resolutions. Intimate reveries intervene, then recede. The lyricism pushes forwards, then backtracks, folding in itself, before the next big effusion. Harmonies sometimes take a step backward, where others rush on. There are moments of stasis before emotions begin to churn again. Themes return in fairly conventional reprises, but the apparent transparency of the form turns out to be an illusion—a fantasy. Memories are not just confirmed, but recast, distorted. The second movement is both restive and playful, calming itself finally with a lullaby that rocks back and forth ever more slowly until lapsing into a sleep of blissful forgetfulness. After being visited by shifting states, the last movement concludes with a joyous, accelerating affirmation that, just before the close, swoons with nostalgia, before rocketing towards its final outburst that seems to shake the music from its own feverish dream. Musical time passes, but in their fitful revelations, the Fantasy Pieces offer welcome contrast to the incremental, indistinguishable Corona chronology.

We played the piece last weekend on one of the few warm and sunny day’s we’ve had. My wife Annette was working in the front garden along the twisting street that leads up through our neighborhood perched on one of Ithaca’s many gorges. These days, more pedestrians walk along the path. Those that passed by stopped to listen as the music poured from the house. They might have been smiling behind their masks.

I’ve also been playing seventeenth-century dance tunes— some slow, some fast—by myself either on a Yamaha digital keyboard in the basement or on my clavichord in the attic. Neither of these instruments can be heard by my housemates.

I’ve been exploring masters of renaissance variations and while trying to make up my own versions: the melancholic Pavana lachrymae (pavane of tears) by John Dowland, one of the biggest European hits of its day; the ubiquitous Bergamasca (this hugely popular ditty stems from the Italian region hardest hit by the present pandemic); Onder een Linde groen (Under a Green Linden Tree), a bawdy song of romance en plein air; the rowdy Ballo del Granduca followed by another downcast reflection, the Pavana dolorosa. Like Schumann’s, this music expresses it emotions unabashedly, but without the manic shifts of the Fantasy pieces.

I’m not sure why, but Im prone to be superstitious, and it occurred to me that one of the greatest renaissance keyboard masters and dance-tune titans, Heinrich Scheidemann was claimed by the plague in Hamburg in 1663. I’m playing his music anyway. He lives on in his fragile setting of the Pavana lachrymae and dances beyond death with his exuberant Galliard ex D.

Today started sunny. Early in the morning my wife and walked through the picturesque city cemetery that borders our house to the north. This park was carefully designed in the nineteenth century to encourage the living to walk among the dead. Its hills, terraces, and avenues extend over some twenty dilapidated acres to Ezra Cornell’s mansion (now a fraternity) that he called Llenroc. A group of four vultures (called a “committee” when not in flight, Wikipedia informs me just now) had taken up position in the graveyard’s only sycamore, its silver-white bark glinting. From their perches in this giant tree, these birds spread their huge wings, cormorant-like, soaking up the sunlight.

But as I sit at my computer, the morning is already darkening. A polar vortex is forming. Snow is in the forecast. Time to gather one’s courage and patience and humor. Time to rummage in one’s musical cupboard for sustenance. I think it’ll be piano four-hands arrangements of Beethoven symphonies—the insouciant Second?—to warm the cold night ahead.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at