Mourning and music

Juliana M. Pistorius

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


The music scholar Juliana M. Pistorius issues a reminder that the great musical expressions of grief in the Western tradition are not the only soundtracks to accompany mourning, and finds in the evanescence of the musical note an analogy for human mortality. We mourn as we remember music that recedes into the past – sound that dies away before us, always while rushing ahead and waiting for new life in its future performance.1 Mourning, in the West, has a soundtrack. ‘Nimrod’, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Op. 36 (1899) for funerals; Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Op. 11 (1938) – identified in a 2004 survey by the BBC’s Today programme as ‘the saddest music ever written’ – to commemorate the 9/11 attacks;2 Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Op. 66 (1962) to lament the devastation of two World Wars. These works articulate memory and loss in the musical language of Western ‘high art’: the structural containment of familiar forms; the lush timbre of strings, orchestras, organs (ecclesiastical and vocal). Here, sorrow enters the sublime; transcended beyond coarse misery, it is universalised through the generic language of Western musical beauty. In constructing the musical memorialisation of Others, however, a different aesthetic is projected. The Netherlands-based charity Musicians Without Borders conducted an outreach project with the widows of ←247 | 248→Srebrenica.3 To mediate the women’s grief, the charity’s musicians performed Bosnian folk songs, designed to invoke memories and to facilitate mourning. Here, at the devastated margin...
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOn Commemoration
Subtitle of host publicationGlobal Reflections upon Remembering War
EditorsCatherine Gilbert, Kate McLoughlin, Niall Munro
PublisherVerlag Peter Lang AG
Number of pages2
ISBN (Electronic)9781788749398, 9781788749404, 9781788749411
ISBN (Print)9781788747325
Publication statusPublished - 11 Aug 2020


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