by David Yearsley, April 19, 2017
“The earth felt like a boat in a storm,” Mohammad Shahzadah said after the Mother of All Bombs hit the Achin district in Nangarhar province in Afghanistan yesterday after evening prayers. The Guardian reported Shahzadah saying that, “I thought my house was being bombed. Last year a drone strike targeted a house next to mine, but this time it felt like the heavens were falling. The children and women were very scared.”
Joseph Haydn’s rousing chorus from his oratorio The Creation proclaimed that “The Heavens are Telling.” Of What? “God and His glory.” The Afghan heavens were both falling and telling of the awesome power and wrathful glory of the United States of America.
Such cataclysms, both “natural” (e.g., earthquakes and hurricanes) and unnatural (the Mother of All Bombs), cannot be represented in words or in music. Yet many composers have tried, most often conjuring biblical plagues and disasters in dramatic religious music that would instruct, elevate, warn, and terrify the faithful and the faithless.
From God’s fury on earth manifested in hurricanes and fires to the final cataclysm of the Last Judgment, musicians were long charged with painting vivid tableaux of death and destruction. Nowadays we often witness on television catastrophic events unfolding in real time, though no such footage is yet available of the MOAB. Before the advent of instantaneous mass media, newspapers could describe events and disseminate information soon after the fact, but the job of evoking visceral reactions to distant battles, earthquakes, typhoons, and tidal waves was left to the politicians, preachers and composers.
During his Italian sojourn Handel commemorated the Roman earthquakes of 1703 in his Marian cantatas of 1708, spurring terror, awe, and sympathy with his gifts for depicting the unpredictable natural world in musical sound; a half century later, Handel would portray another earthquake at the outset of his most famous work, Messiah.
The Donnerode (Thunder Ode) by Handel’s friend, George Philipp Telemann, responded to the greatest natural disaster of the eighteenth century, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Telemann’s musical mission was not only to give the listeners a charge of fright through timpani tattoos and terrifying violin bolts presaging the apocalypse, but also to loosen the pocketbooks of his audience so as to aid the Portuguese victims. Some of the music was meant to elicit compassion, but the more effective money-raiser was terror, as in the duet for two basses rumbling “he thunders.” The low pair of voices trembles furiously amidst the shrieks of the organ and orchestra and the shuddering of the kettledrum. Such frightening passages had people envisioning the distant devastation in their own minds, scenes even more frightening since they feared that God’s wrath might be turned against them and their own sins.
As Handel, Telemann and other pictorially talented composers demonstrated, music could conjure scenes of disaster, especially when there was a separate program or explicit relation to a recent cataclysm. Musical works, even when equipped with a text, were by definition indefinite, a trait that could prove to be an advantage when evoking distant catastrophes. Music has an unmatched capacity for sparking that most transgressive of human faculties: the imagination.
Telemann’s impetus for composing his Donnerode had been charitable. But thrill of the works’ sublime terror made it a huge favorite in Hamburg. In 1760 Telemann responded to this popularity by equipping the oratorio with a sequel, second part. Musical depictions of the supposed glories of war and the terrors of natural disasters easily take on an aesthetic and economic life of their own.
While composers sought to imitate the natural world at its most furious and vengeful, music was also deployed for the cause not just of commemorating wars, but also of making it. Sonic technology was deployed on the field of combat to organize troops, as in the fife and drum corps of the British Grenadiers (depicted with chilling detachment by Stanley Kubrick in his 1975 film, Barry Lyndon) and in the Janissary bands of the Ottoman Turks that struck terror into the hearts of their European adversaries and led composers such as Mozart to appropriate these exotic strains for their own operatic and orchestral entertainments.
In contrast to Kubrick’s cool, the great Beethoven went for bombast in his Wellington’s Victory, a fifteen-minute orchestral work the marked the British triumph at the Battle of Vitoria in Spain against Bonaparte’s forces in 1812. Wellington’s Victory was wildly popular in its day before it came to be seen as meretricious and was overshadowed by composer’s own symphonies, especially the turbulent and ultimately triumphant Fifth. Yet the music historian Nicholas Mathew has shown in his brilliant 2013 book, Political Beethoven, that the two pieces have much more in common musically and ideologically than purist Ludwig worshippers would like to admit. Present-day reenactors and concert-organizers sometimes light up Beethoven’s musical battle scenery with real firepower, as in a Nighttime Prom concert from Highclere Castle mounted in 2013, the bicentennial of Wellington’s Victory.
While musical instruments were used to evoke the sounds of armed conflict, the instruments of war could, conversely, be endowed with their own violent music. Nothing was louder in the pre-industrial world than the din of battle, and imagining martial mayhem-makers as music-makers was both strangely calming and emboldeningly unsettling.
Thus the largest artillery pieces of the eighteenth century like those leveled at the church spires of Dresden by Frederick the Great in 1760 in the midst of the Seven Years’ War were called Sängerinnen—the word for female singers.
These siren siege-makers rained their song down on the magnificent dome of the Frauenkirche, the very symbol of the city, called the Florence on the Elbe. Intent on breaking the spirit of the inhabitants, Frederick had, according to an English traveller who arrived in the city a decade after the attack, pointed his cannons at the city’s proudest landmark: “The King of Prussia, in his last bombardment of Dresden, tried every means in his power to beat this church … but in vain, for the orbicular form of the dome threw off the balls and shells, and totally prevented their effect.” The dropping of some 650,000 bombs on the city by Allied forces in February of 1945 effected the destruction Frederick could not achieve. The church was reconstructed in 2005, the blackened stones of the post-war rubble heap built into the façade as a reminder of the destruction.
Canon in German is Kanone—a feminine noun. It therefore made grammatical sense for eighteenth-century soldiers to refer to the beast with the word for female singer. Comparing these phallic monsters of destruction to refined musicians was an eardrum-bursting joke. That the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb dropped yesterday in Afghanistan could, through acronymic parallelism, be made into a mother, and her apocalyptic blast into a lullaby of freedom, is an infinitely more deafening and destructive irony.
David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J.S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.