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London bombings: music to console and heal

By David Mackay - posted Wednesday, 13 July 2005

Leonard Slatkin’s first Last Night of the Proms as the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was held on Saturday, September 15, 2001, and he took great care to explain why the program had been changed at such short notice. In the BBC’s news release announcing the change - which replaced the traditional Rule Britannia and other boisterous sea shanties with John Adams’ fanfare Tromba Lontana, the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Barber’s Adagio for Strings - he said, “Unity through music is now the message and we can use our sounds to help underscore the long healing process that must take place”.

During the concert, Slatkin introduced Barber’s Adagio by saying that, for Americans, this piece embodies the nation’s mourning. For the British, he suggested, Nimrod - the ninth variation from Elgar’s Enigma Variations - fulfils the same role, providing a musical touchstone familiar enough to be easily recognised and strong enough to bear the burden of repeated listening, as well as providing a degree of solace and reassurance to the listener.

My partner and I moved back to Australia almost twelve months ago, but having lived in central London for two years, we still feel suspended between the two places. A lot of our close friends still live there, and its sights and sounds are as familiar to us as anything from “home”.


Watching the news of last Thursday unfold on TV was just awful, especially as several of the bomb sites were far too close for comfort … Russell Square (our tube stop), Tavistock Place (just up the road), Kings Cross (our mainline station). We have friends living at Russell Square still, and while everyone to whom we’re close is safe, one of the administrators at Goodenough College, our home for two years, is still among the missing.

For me, as for many others, listening to music is an integral part of dealing with events like this. The morning after the news broke, I searched for something to listen to and began thinking about the way different nations rely on specific pieces of music in times like this. What should I, an Australian sitting safely in the northern suburbs of Canberra, but bound up in the places and people suffering through the events of 7-7 in London, be listening to? What music can I turn to that won’t feel out of place?

I suspect that Slatkin’s insinuation that every nation needs its own music of mourning is spot on: Barber’s Adagio certainly feels wrong to me, somehow like borrowing someone else’s answer to a problem that I need to deal with. Maybe nothing is going to feel quite right unless it is that culture’s own - tied in some way to its own history and people.

But what is it about the Barber Adagio and Elgar’s Nimrod in particular that have made them such perennial favourites at times like this? Both were originally written as internal movements to larger works but have become so popular that most people who know them would, I suspect, be surprised to hear that they were once a small part of a much larger whole.

Barber’s Adagio is an achingly beautiful arch of music, simple in construction but rising inexorably to its climax - a shrieking E major chord held (under Leonard Bernstein’s baton at least) for ten seconds by the upper strings. This moment of excruciating tension is followed immediately by silence and then, so soft as to be almost inaudible, the continuation of the phrase. I have yet to listen to the piece without holding my breath through this silence, waiting for the palpable relief of the soft re-entrance of the orchestra.

Like that of his contemporary Aaron Copland, Barber’s music evokes a sense of space and openness, redolent of the American landscape. This Adagio was played at the funerals of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, as well as Princess Grace and Prince Rainier III of Monaco. Its subsequent use in Oliver Stone’s Platoon cemented it into America’s - and the world’s - consciousness as music of mourning, where it has remained ever since. (Indeed, the BBC’s Radio 4 listeners, ever fond of league tables and otherwise pointless rankings, voted it the “saddest classical work ever” on the Today Program in 2004.)


Elgar’s Enigma Variations began as an improvisation overheard by his wife, who suggested that he turn it into something more permanent - it became a set of 14 orchestral caricatures of his friends. The ninth, best known now by its dedication, Nimrod, is a sketch of Elgar’s closest friend, Augustus Jaeger, and depicts a night-time walk during which they had discussed Beethoven’s slow movements. This sounds far too cerebral a topic to have inspired Britain’s most cherished solemn music, but the result is a stately, lush and in many ways reassuring piece of music the almost sentimental Victorian harmony of which has endeared it to generations of audiences ever since.

Indeed, although Barber’s harmony is more adventurous and tortured than Elgar’s, and although Elgar’s orchestration is much more dramatic than Barber’s, they both take the listener on an emotional journey, and - significantly - both end quietly, in a major key. No matter how harrowing either piece may be, both deliver the listener safely to a feeling of repose and contentment.

By contrast, Queen Mary’s funeral in London in 1695 prompted the composition of Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary and, in particular, its opening March, written to be performed as the royal cortège made its way up Whitehall to Westminster Abbey. As in the work of Barber and Elgar, Purcell’s March is restrained, chordal and sombre, but unlike the later two composers there is no feeling of reassurance in this music.

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David Mackay is a Canberra-based writer and musician.

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