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A Brief History of Music in Times of Hardship



A Brief History of Music in Times of Hardship

By Siobhan Cullinane

During times of great hardship or great happiness, whether it be global or personal, music is so often the medium we turn to in order to convey our joy or to find solace, peace and comfort. It has the ability to express a sentiment beyond words and is never impeded by cultural barriers: it is universal in the emotion it channels, whatever emotion that may be. As the current crisis tightens its grip on the world and affects every one of our lives, it is no exception that music is something that will help us to endure this time of fear and uncertainty, providing hope and unity to communities across the globe. Throughout history, there have been many examples of how music has been a vessel of strength in the most challenging of times.

Often, the hardest and most hopeless of times are said to be those of war. One of the most memorable tunes ever written was originally a call to arms in 1792 for French soldiers against their Austrian invaders. It became popular with volunteer army units from Marseille and so earned its famous title: La Marseillaise. However, over the last 228 years, it has become much more than a marching song for troops and is perhaps one of the most well-known national anthems in the world. So stirring is this song that it has been a symbol of revolution for centuries. As a result of this, it has been banned by various French leaders during its lifetime, including by Napoleon, Louis XVIII and the Vichy government during the Second World War. It almost seems beyond belief that these leaders feared its mere existence to an extent that they felt they had to take steps such as these to contain its powerful and contagious influence. Although some of its more violent lyrics have been the source of controversy in recent years, we must respect the fact that the world in which it was written is, in many ways, very different to the world we live in today. For most people, it would be fair to argue that some of the words have taken on more of a historical and symbolic significance: it would be wrong to compare them too literally to the bloody time in which they were written. What remains unchanged is the melody, which inexplicably manages to rouse and rally people together for any collective cause. Only a few years ago, after a minute’s silence held for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, French politicians burst into a spontaneous and defiant rendition of La Marseillaise. Such moments as these cannot be manufactured and no speech or grand statement could have better portrayed the fraternity and stoic solidarity displayed by these representatives of the government.

Another notable example of music offering comfort in the most dire of situations was during the ill-fated voyage of RMS Titanic in 1912. The ship’s eight musicians came together on the deck as it was sinking and continued to play together, despite the water and hysteria rising rapidly around them. Although later glamourised by Hollywood, by all accounts this heroic display of bravery and solidarity truly did take place. Resigned to their fate, they continued to play until the ship went down, legend has it ending their most famous concert with particular poignancy with the hymn, Nearer My God To Thee. Lawrence Beesley, a survivor of the disaster, later wrote:

“Many brave things were done that night, but none more brave than by those men playing minute after minute as the ship settled quietly lower and lower in the sea and the sea rose higher and higher to where they stood; the music they played serving alike as their own immortal requiem and their right to be recorded on the rolls of undying fame.”i

Even in the gravest of circumstances, it seems that music has the somewhat unique power to elicit integrity and hope when it is most needed.

A mere two years after this great tragedy, it is difficult to imagine a bleaker time than life in the trenches during the First World War. It is well-documented that conditions were appalling and the loss of life unprecedented. Famously, on December 25, 1914, a Christmas truce was undertaken between the soldiers on opposing sides without official sanction. This resulted in troops enjoying a game of football together, which according to many recollections began with carol singing which transcended enemy lines. Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade described his experience:

“First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.” ii

This moving account is one of many which exhibits the potential that music has to give faith, not necessarily that of a religious nature, but of a humanitarian nature in times of despair.

Perhaps not as well-known, but equally as remarkable, was the performance given by the Leningrad Radio Orchestra on the 20th October 1941 during the siege of Leningrad. The orchestra were instructed to continue delivering performances during this period in order to boost public morale. In this particular concert at the city’s Philharmonic Hall, the orchestra were performing Tchaikovsky’s celebrated 5th Symphony, which was composed with a theme of ‘ultimate triumph through strife’, and so saw particular popularity during the Second World War. This concert was broadcast live to London, and at the start of the second movement (which consists of an incredibly beautiful horn solo), bombs could be heard dropping in the background. Astonishingly, none of the musicians so much as flinched, all continuing until the end of the four movement symphony, displaying incredible fortitude in the darkest of times.

Although the circumstances are not always as dramatic as this, there have been countless examples of music being a great unifying force. Vera Lynn, ‘The Forces’ Sweetheart’ gave comfort with her songs to homesick soldiers during the Second World War with hits such as We’ll Meet Again and The White Cliffs of Dover. In more recent times, the ‘charity concert’ has become ever more popular, kick-started by the famous Live Aid concert of 1985 which drew in an estimated audience of 1.5 billion people worldwide, raising a total of over £110 million to combat famine in Africa.iii

It would be futile to attempt to cite every example of where music has been significant during times of hardship. In addition to its prevalence as an important component of great historic events, every individual will have their own memory of when music has been a form of salvation in their own personal crisis, through heartbreak, loss or despair.

Unsurprisingly, the current coronavirus pandemic is no exception. With vast swathes of Europe and the wider world confined to their homes, in this age of social media, numerous online groups have been created for people to perform and share their music with each other digitally. In Italy, videos have circulated online showing vast numbers of people coming together on their balconies to enjoy performances of musicians as well as to join in singing together, sometimes making use of pots and pans where no other instruments are available. This is, without a doubt, going on undocumented this very moment in many villages, towns and cities across the globe: wherever there are people, there will be music.

As we collectively live through what is one of the most challenging times the world has faced in living memory, it is certain that many more stories will be made where music is a vital component of unity and positivity, and will undoubtedly aid us in surmounting this challenge in which we all must make our own personal sacrifices, and play our own parts.


i Anon., “Titanic: Band of Courage,” https://cargofilm-releasing.com/films/titanic-band-of-courage/ (accessed 31 March, 2020).

ii Naina Bajekal, “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914,” Time, December 24, 2014, https://time.com/3643889/christmas-truce-1914/ (accessed 31 March, 2020).

iii Anon., “Live Aid 1985: How it all happened,” BBC, https://www.bbc.co.uk/music/thelive8event/liveaid/history.shtml (accessed 31 March 2020).

Wow, what a riveting read and so very true to the core! Music heals, music unites us all. Thank you Siobhan!
Beautiful article. A true reminder of the emotion that lives within music, whether creating, playing or listening!

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