Singing through the Pandemic

If music be the food of life, play on.  Say it with music.  I'll know that moment divine.

On April 5, 2020, the 93-year-old Queen Elizabeth II delivered the fourth TV address of her 68 years on the throne, outside her annual Christmas greetings.  In a gracious and indeed eloquent five-minute speech, she thanked care workers and health workers for selfless duty, thanked those who were obeying lockdown rules to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and took pride in the British population for their attributes of self-discipline and quiet good-humored resolve.  Her message was realistic, optimistic, and encouraging: "We should take comfort that while we may have still more to endure, better days will return, we will be with our friends again, we will be with our families again, we'll meet again."

In the last phrase of her speech, the queen obliquely referred to the song "We'll Meet Again," made famous in 1939 by Vera Lynn at the beginning of World War II.  It was a song recognizing heartbreak through separation, but one that was optimistic and a major morale-booster.  It is still relevant today: "Don't know where, don't know why, but I know we'll meet again some sunny day, keep smiling through just like you always do, until the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away."

In World War II, the song helped raise the spirit of the British nation.  Today, it is indicative of the determination to fight the invisible enemy, COVID-19, menacing the world, envisioning success in the war against the pandemic and a reminder that better days will return.  At this moment, the people of the world are more likely to be under stress, to experience frustration and anger, and to understand that there is no easy solution to the problems all nations are experiencing.

The memory of Vera Lynn and the impact of the record of her song suggest a method to overcome stress and depression, maybe through music.

Music has long been used in political affairs for support or opposition to proposals or actions, or to instill patriotism.  Beethoven dedicated his Third Symphony to Bonaparte until Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804, when Beethoven rescinded the dedication.  Verdi in his opera Nabucco used the chorus of the Hebrew slaves to call for Italian liberation.  In recent years, the song "We Shall Overcome" became the anthem of the civil rights movement, the chant "Give Peace a Chance," was written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney in 1969, and Bob Dylan wrote "Blowin' in the Wind," a protest song with rhetorical questions, in 1962.

It has long been recognized that music has therapeutic qualities, that it benefits mental health.

A McGill study in 2011 concluded that listening to music led to an increase of dopamine, the mood-enhancing chemical in the brain that helps against depression.

Music often appears to ease pain, triggers the release of opioids in the brain, reduces stress, affects pulse, lowers heart rate, lowers blood pressure.  It may help with memory recall, fending off depression, increasing blood flow, and lowering the level of hormones like cortisol.  It activates neurochemical systems associated with positive mood, attention, and memory, though music can also bolster negative emotions and sadness.

It is noticeable that music has been regarded in European countries as a remedy during the COVID-19 crisis.  Italy has suffered the largest number of casualties: more than 135,000 infected and 17,000 deaths.  Italy has closed all factories, all travel except for health and professional reasons has been banned, affected areas have been isolated, and 62 million stay at home.  Fans of the local football team Napoli sang in the street "Un giorno all'improvviso," a song popularized in 2016.  The town of Naples sang "Abbracciame, piu forte" — hug me — a song by pop singer Andrea Sannino.  A song that went viral is "Andra tutto bene" — everything will be all right.  Siena sang the "canto della verbena," while Sienna sleeps.

In sympathy, people in the Bavarian town of Bamberg opened windows to sing "Bella Ciao," a wartime resistance song.

Even Bono, inspired by Italians singing while under quarantine, wrote a song dedicated to Italy, "Let your love be known" — yes, there is isolation, but you are still here.  Sing and promise me again not to stop.

For Americans and British people, it might be beneficial to relieve stress, tension and frustration and fend off depression resulting from their isolation or distance from others by listening to or singing the melodies of the Great American Songbook, the influential popular standard songs composed for Broadway and films mainly in a thirty-year period, 1920–50.  The Songbook is not a specific list of songs, but a set of what is in fact a musical portrait of American society and mores.  Among other things, resorting to the Songbook, a distinct body of work, with harmonic subtleties, melodic lines, key and tempo changes, and modulations, is an affirmation of solidarity with society and culture and unification against adversity.

People will have their favorite of these hundreds of ballads — urbane, witty, reflecting a variety of moods, written by musicians from Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, and Harold Arlen to Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim, and subjected to endless variations through the years.  Here are a few suggestions of songs from the Songbook with which many people, if not everyone, will be familiar.

Probably the most enticing is "All the Things You Are," the song written in 1939 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein for a show, Very Warm for May, which was Kern's last Broadway show and was unsuccessful.  The verse, often not performed, begins, "Time and again I've longed for adventure" but is the start of an expressive emotional ballad, with unusual modulations, a melody not easy to sing well with rising fourths, and chords above the bass line.  It has been a favorite piece with musicians and played in different styles.

Almost everyone is familiar with the song "Over the Rainbow," written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg in 1938 for the film Wizard of Oz.  It won the Academy Award for best original song.  It is song of reassurance, coming to a new land where trouble melts like lemon drops, but also one of yearning and homesickness.  It is ironic the MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer wanted to cut the song from the film and had to be persuaded to let it remain — a song that is one of the most renowned movie themes and the song that made Judy Garland an icon.

Typical of lists and catalogues is "These Foolish Things," composed by Eric Maschwitz and Jack Strachey in 1935 for a London revue, Spread It Abroad.  A song with verse and three choruses, it is a romantic and nostalgic ballad.

Add seven examples, of the countless others, that will relieve stress.  "I Like New York in June How about You" by Burton Lane; "My Favorite Things" by Rodgers and Hammerstein; "Our Love Is Here to Stay" by Gershwin; With a Song in My Heart" by Rodgers and Hart; "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" by Duke Ellington; "I Thought about You" by Jimmy van Heusen; "Just One of Those Things" by Cole Porter; "Everything Happens to Me" by Matt Dennis.

I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?