Since I am a musician and fervent believer in the restorative and healing power of music, I feel compelled to share music written about and for victims. I have collected ten personal favorite events and compositions that communicate hope and a desire to overcome pain and suffering. This music challenges humanity, yet in order to heal we must face pain, and some of the pieces I included are downright tear jerking. My heart aches especially for hurt and suffering inflicted upon children, so you might notice that thread in my musical choices.
I am incredibly grateful to these composers, conductors and singers for their foresight, courage, and willingness to create art that challenges us, but also makes the world a more beautiful and gratifying place.
1- Example 1 is not a specific piece, but comes from a blog I wrote a year ago about my experiences with the Irish choir Anúna, during our concert tour in Japan. The blog outlines my observations as we visited the Tsunami stricken Fukushima region of Japan. We gave a concert to an enthusiastic crowd of primary school children and they touched my heart. It is an experience I will not soon forget. You can read it in either location listed below:
(Michael McGlynn also arranged one of the most famous carols about victims: the slaughter of thousands of children at the hand of King Herrod, in the bible. This version of Coventry Carol is simple, ethereal and haunting)
2- Castle on a Cloud – Les Miserables
My favorite musical, Les Miserables, is a powerful story of cruelty, humanity and hope. The story addresses starvation, war, unfair justice, and it delves into the deep and ugly world of child abuse. This song is a bitter/sweet moment in the show where the neglected and abused child, Cosette, copes with her circumstances by dreaming of a brighter life. The beautiful tale awards her that brighter life, but not without the immense sacrifice and love of Jean Valjean, her adopted father.
3- A Child’s Prayer – James MacMillan
This composition is powerfully heartbreaking, and much harder to listen to than most of the other pieces on my list. Composed in the memory of the Dublane School Massacre in Scotland, where a man entered a primary school, shot and killed sixteen children and one adult. It was the turning point in the UK discussion about legislation for gun control. James MacMillan etches two high melancholy voices in the score, representing the lost children.
4- Prayer of the Children – Kurt Bestor
Although every sort of choir, band and soloist has sung this song, (and often not particularly well) it remains high on my list of wrenchingly beautiful music about victims. The text speaks of children living in circumstances that would turn the most jaded of us pale. The text asks God to hear the hearts and voices of those children, take them away from harm and hope for a better day amidst their world, which is ‘full of hate’.
5- Requiem – Craig Hella Johnson arranged this beautiful song, by Eliza Gilkyson for choir.
The text is a plea to Mother Mary from a population of victims who suffered from the 1996 Tsunami’s in Indonesia. Their lives changed forever as homes, belongings and families disappeared in an instant, swallowed up by the sea. Over 260,000 lives were lost in that natural disaster. The voices in the composition seek comfort for their soul from ‘Mother Mary, full of grace’. This piece holds relevance for the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the Japanese Tsunami of 2011.
6- Across the Vast Eternal Sky – Ola Gjeilo
I listened to this piece a great deal last summer after my sister and her family endured a horrific car accident. It was a miracle that my 8-year old niece not only survived her life-threatening injuries, but now thrives. This song gave me immense hope while my niece was fighting for her life for several weeks in a coma. Blessed with awe-inspiring talent, composer Ola Gjeilo creates music that is not only beautiful and warm, but healing and transcending. This piece, in my opinion, is his shining jewel. Charles Anthony Silvestri’s text recounts the magical path of the Phoenix beginning with youth, light and soaring flight. Parallel to evolution in our own lives, over time the Phoenix turns sadly grey, losing its bright vibrancy of color. Yet even in the midst of death, the Phoenix affirms: “Do not despair that I am gone away; I will appear again when the sunset paints flames across the vast eternal sky.” Sure enough, my niece did appear again, more brilliantly painted than before her tragic injuries!
7 – The Seal Lullaby – Eric Whitacre
This piece, originally conceived as a ‘disney-esque’ lullaby, narrates the tale of a mother seal singing to her young pup assuring him safety and love. Although this piece is not specifically about victims, it most certainly pulls on the heartstrings of all parents who would do anything to protect their children from dangers beyond their loving arms. Whitacre’s portrayal is a comforting and warm tale, full of hope and peaceful innocence… something we all need a little of now and then.
8 – There Will be Rest – Frank Tichelli
Composed on a text by Sara Teasdale, she expresses that although there may not be peace in this lonely life, there is rest and beauty found in music, snow, and ultimately in the vast majesty of the stars. The harmony, texture and carefully crafted flow of the song take the listener on a journey, which slowly awakens the mind to the infinite potential of the universe.
9- Canticum Calimatatis Maritamae – Jaakko Mäntijärvi
This 13-minute work honors the victims of the 1994 tragedy, in which the MS Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea and became one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century. 917 lives were lost that day, only 137 survived and not a single survivor being under the age of 12. Finnish Composer Jaakko Mäntijärvi’s work begins with the haunting whisperings of the victims lost at sea, while the single plaintive voice of the lost sea captain’s widow sings a sorrowful hymn (based loosely on Irish hymn, Nearer My God to Thee. Popular rumors state that the hymn is one of the last songs played by the musicians on the Titanic as it sank into its fateful grave in 1912). We then hear the actual news report of the disaster, spoken in Latin, which leads into choral illustrations that evoke images of thrashing waves, undulating currents, frightful activity, and finally a deep unsettling rest as the deep claims its prey.
9 – War Requiem – Let Us Sleep Now – Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is one of the hardest large choral works to absorb mentally, physically and emotionally due to its heavy and overwhelmingly visceral depiction of war’s devastation. However, his last movement moves away from the pain and towards rest, reconciliation and forgiveness. Yet even though there is a sense of rest in Let us sleep now, Britten casts an ironic tone, as there is no way to recover truly from the horrors of a war in which over 60 million people died.