Music and Pandemics

Thursday, May 20, 2021

A recent review of the book Plague and Music in the Renaissance by Remi Chiu caught our eye. Chiu looks at the different ways that music found expression during the time in history when the plague was basically a constant threat. Though the book was published in 2017, it takes on an unexpected relevance today.

Chiu includes an appendix of motets and madrigals addressed to specific saints, particularly St. Sebastian (protector against plague), prayer settings, and madrigals directly connected to the 1576-78 outbreak in Milan. Researchers using the RISM catalog to find music connected with plagues or other pandemics must also have on hand resources such as Chiu’s book, or for example Christopher Macklin’s appendix in his “Plague, performance and the elusive history of the Stella celi extirpavit” (2010). Records in RISM index names of musical forms and people involved, but not topical terms of what a piece is about.

Pieces cited by Chiu and Macklin can be found in RISM (insofar that we have them) by searching for the abbreviations ChiuP 2017 and MacklinS 2010, respectively.

If helpful books and articles about a particular pandemic are unavailable, then you have to rely on keyword searching: search for likely words (even archaic ones) that might appear in the piece’s title, somewhere on the source itself, or added as a note by a cataloger.

Using such a keyword search, you can find some music surrounding a cholera outbreak that raged through Berlin in 1831-32. Fanny Hensel wrote a “Cholera Cantata” just a few weeks into the epidemic (image; RISM ID no. 462003900). Hensel lost friends and family members during the cholera wave and her diary during this time reflects how it affected her life, excerpts of which can be read here.

Hensel was not the only composer who reacted musically to the health crisis. A search in the RISM catalog for “cholera” finds other pieces that can be dated to this particular cholera outbreak: a violin concerto possibly by Ludwig Wilhelm Maurer written during the “terrible time of cholera” and a piece by Moritz Friedrich August Kähler for the benefit of children orphaned by the outbreak.

Hensel’s Cholera Cantata is performed here:

Image: “Elegy” (Trauerchor) from Fanny Hensel’s cantata Höret zu merket auf. D-B MA Ms. 39. RISM ID No. 462003900.
Available online: Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin - PK

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