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Music in Times of Crisis—5 & 1 Classical Music Series

[Editor's Note: This post resumes Mark Meynell's 5&1 series on classical music which ran in 2020-2021. In this series we share five shorter classical pieces followed by one more substantial piece—all inside a given theme. With over 600 years of music to draw from, the hope is that you find a few old favorites combined with one or two new discoveries in each post.]


Just weeks after the Second World War broke out in 1939, the renowned pianist Dame Myra Hess organized lunchtime concerts in the empty halls of London’s National Gallery. All the art had been whisked away for safekeeping deep in caves in the Welsh mountains. So instead of visual beauty, Londoners had the chance to savor its aural equivalent. The concerts continued five days a week, for six years throughout the war, even during the horror of the Blitz. There were nearly 2000 concerts. They kept people going.

Music does that. It has the power to connect with people in their darkest moments. It provides escape, certainly: a few minutes to be transported or replace fear and despair with lighter emotions. At the same time, it can achieve the precise opposite, somehow articulating that very fear or despair in such a way that gives comfort. It communicates that we are not alone to feel what we do. And then it can lift our spirits to higher realities far beyond the challenges we face. We are reminded that the darkness engulfing us need not have the last word, that there are reasons for hope in the sublime and beautiful.

Composers have sought to achieve all three, and sometimes they manage to do that simultaneously. But that is the miracle of music: contradictory emotions and thoughts can be expressed together. This list offers what a handful of composers have done while living through the crises of their own times.


See how the Cawood dragon looks / Have mercy on us, O Lord (Ps 67)

William Lawes (1602-1645, English) / The Ebor Singers, Paul Gameson (cond.)

Crisis: The English Civil War

The English Civil War was one of the first wars in history fought on the basis of ideology rather than ethnic or national allegiance. The result was that brothers and fathers might find themselves on opposite sides. It was brutal. Some would argue that the repercussions of this horrific period (which led to England becoming a republic for two decades) still shape British politics.

William Lawes was a composer working during the reign of Charles I. When war broke out, he joined the king’s forces and was in York (a royalist stronghold) during its siege by Parliamentary forces in Spring 1644. He was killed the following year in a battle near the city of Chester. These two works respond to the crisis in different ways. 

The first was actually written during the siege itself. Cawood Castle was about 10 miles from York and Oliver Cromwell’s forces had captured it, and the song is a round in which two or more groups sing a melody just a few beats apart, but it is composed in such a way as to harmonize despite the time lag. The drums in this performance evoke the threat of the ‘Cawood dragon on the Lord of York. This is a rallying cry of defiance at a time of existential threat. Dragons might evoke fantasy and fairy tales, but the danger for the citizens was all too real.

"See how Cawood’s dragon looks!

Which frights from far the parliament rooks

Which, like to fatal ravens cry

Pork! Pork! Pork!

To prey upon my Lord of York!


But we have guns against their plot

And they that cry

Cawood! Cawood! Cawood!

Fear you not."

As might be expected of a church musician, Lawes also sets a biblical prayer for protection (in this case a metrical version of Psalm 67). A soloist leads the congregation in an affecting and yearning cry for mercy. After all, you only beg for mercy when you have absolutely no alternative. It is not hard to see why this ancient prayer might have deep resonance to a city under siege.

Tosca, Act II: "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore" (1900)

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924, Italian) / Leontyne Price (soprano, Tosca), Giuseppe Taddei (bass, Scarpia), Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan (cond.)

Crisis: Italy in 1800 (Napoleon invades) and 1900 (political chaos)

Italian politics has probably always been very complicated and I certainly do not pretend to understand the half of it. The country we now know of as Italy is a relatively modern phenomenon, forged out of many city-states that had fiercely guarded their independence for centuries.  Perhaps as a direct result, it has often experienced real turmoil, both from internal and external pressures.

Puccini is regarded as one of Italy’s national treasures, the composer of expansive, lyrical, and highly melodramatic operas. He wrote Tosca, one of his most famous, during a period of renewed turmoil. It is set in Rome on just two days in June 1800 with Napoleon’s domination of Europe in the background. France has already invaded once and will again, but its troops temporarily withdraw from Rome, leaving behind a chaotic situation.

Baron Scarpia is the chief of police and an all-round rotter. Tosca is the heroine whose lover, Cavaradossi, is an artist and friend of Angelotti, the former consul. Scarpia is desperate to find Angelotti so he arrests and tortures Cavarodossi for information. Tosca is desperate and sings one of Puccini’s most famous arias, an angry and despairing prayer, accusing God of abandoning her. But despite its theme, it is one of the most glorious pieces ever written for the female voice. This is a translation of the Italian text:

"I lived for art, I lived for love,

I never harmed a living soul!

With a discreet hand

I relieved all misfortunes I encountered.

Always with sincere faith

my prayer

rose to the holy tabernacles.

Always with sincere faith

I decorated the altars with flowers.

In this hour of grief,

why, why, Lord,

why do you reward me thus?

I donated jewels to the Madonna's mantle,

and offered songs to the stars and to heaven,

which thus did shine with more beauty.

In this hour of grief,

why, why, Lord,

ah, why do you reward me thus?"

Seven Songs of Latter Days: No. 4. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (1901)

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911, Austrian) / VOCES8, Mary Bevan (soprano), Nick Deutsch (oboe), Barnaby Smith (cond.)

Crisis: Personal Heartache

A crisis is, of course, no less real when experienced by an individual rather than a population. Gustav Mahler was a man who faced acute heartache during his life, because of the pain of antisemitism, agonies within his marriage, and the loss of a child. He is able to articulate in music what so many feel but have no means of expression.

We now hear the human voice in a very different world, accompanied in this arrangement by the haunting voice of the oboe. Mahler composed music for a number of poems by the German poet Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866). This one is particularly affecting, expressing a profound world-weariness and despair at life.

"I am lost to the world

With which I used to waste much time;

It has for so long known nothing of me,

It may well believe that I am dead.

Nor am I at all concerned

If it should think that I am dead.

Nor can I deny it,

For truly I am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world’s tumult

And rest in a quiet realm!

I live alone in my heaven,

In my love, in my song!"

Translation © Richard Stokes, author of The Book of Lieder (Faber, 2005)

Praeludium & Allegro (1905); Berceuse Romantique (Op. 9, 1916)

Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962, Austrian/American) / Joshua Bell (violin), Paul Coker (piano)

Crisis: The First World War

A catastrophe as seismic and terrible as the First World War is too vast to evoke through any one medium. So many of the twentieth century’s greatest artists, musicians, and writers were profoundly shaped by its horrors and they responded to it in a myriad ways.

Fritz Kreisler was a virtuoso violinist (regarded as one of the greatest of all time) who composed and arranged many works for his instrument. He was Jewish but in imperial Austria, it made sense for him to be baptised as a Christian at 12. Of course, this would never protect him Nazi race laws and he managed to escape to the US.

He wrote his beloved Praeludium and Allegro before the First World War. It is a majestic statement of confidence and hope (he often had fun claiming that he was unearthing works by lesser-known composers - in this case, one called Pugnani!). The piano works through a sequence of chords that are reminiscent of the Baroque period, especially the work of Bach, while the violin weaves around them with a little bit of swagger. Then it leads to a joyous allegro.

But just a few years later, he composes Berceuse Romantique in the middle of the war. It is more wistful and lyrical, perhaps dreaming of a world now lost in happier times. The natural response to agony is to long for better times. It is an escape and as such can bring great, if temporary, comfort.

Sleep (arr. Gerald Finzi) from Five Elizabethan Songs

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937, English) / Dame Sarah Connolly, Tenebrae, Aurora Orchestra, Nigel Short (cond.)

Ivor Gurney was a brilliant man, a poet of great profundity and a gifted composer who was taught and mentored by Ralph Vaughan Williams (he regarded himself as composer first and foremost). But he battled with bipolar disorder for much of his life at a time when such afflictions were barely understood, let alone treated sympathetically. He suffered a breakdown in 1913 but he recovered sufficiently to return to the Royal College of Music in London. However, he joined the army in 1915 and was sent to fight in the trenches in Flanders. He wrote poetry during this time but ended up being gassed in 1917 and was invalided home. His recovery was slow and incomplete. Tragically, he would spend the last 15 years of his life in mental institutions.

This piece is a gorgeous setting of a poem by John Fletcher (1579-1625), a cry for relief from the pain.

"COME, Sleep, and with thy sweet deceiving

Lock me in delight awhile;

Let some pleasing dreams beguile

All my fancies; that from thence

I may feel an influence

All my powers of care bereaving!

Though but a shadow, but a sliding,

Let me know some little joy!

We that suffer long annoy

Are contented with a thought

Through an idle fancy wrought:

O let my joys have some abiding!"

Mass in a time of War (No. 10 in C ma, Hob. XXII:9, 1796)

Josef Haydn (1732-18o9, Austrian) / Joanne Lunn (sop.), Sara Mingardo (contralto), Topi Lehtipuu (tenor), Brindley Sherratt (bass), Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists & John Eliot Gardiner (cond.)

Crisis: Austria after the French Revolution

It wasn’t only Italy that was affected by the fallout from the French Revolution (1789). The whole of Europe was convulsed by turmoil, a reality that Napoleon was easily able to exploit. The Austrian empire hastily mobilized troops and found itself fighting the French in Italy and Germany. Things were not going well and there was a real threat that Vienna might also fall to the French conqueror. And in fact, this is what precisely happened when Napoleon captured Vienna in 1809.

Joseph Haydn was a devout Catholic and one of the most highly regarded musicians of the era, greatly respected by the likes of Mozart and Beethoven. He was also a gregarious person with a real sense of fun and humor.

He wrote several settings of the Catholic Mass, and this is one of the most popular. It follows the standard liturgical pattern, with 11 sections. As such, there are no explicit references to the invasion threat. However, it was an expression of turning to God in the crisis and leaning on his mercy during a service focused on the sacrifice of Christ. Still, there are musical hints of the context towards the end of the Mass. Listen out for this in the Benedictus and Agnus Dei sections, where there is a sense of foreboding in nervous voices and ominous drums (the mass in fact has a nickname: Paukenmesse, literally the ‘Timpani Mass’). The final appeal for peace (dona nobis pacem) has obvious relevance too, but the music sounds an optimistic note, full of joy and expectancy.

Listen to the rest of the mass on YouTube.


Mark Meynell is Director (Europe and Caribbean) of Langham Preaching. He was ordained in the Church of England in 1997 serving in several places including 9 years at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, (during which he also served as a part-time government chaplain). Prior to that, he taught at a small seminary in Kampala, Uganda, for four years. Since 2019, he has helped to bring the Hutchmoot Arts conference to the UK and in 2022 completed a Doctor of Ministry (at Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis) researching the place of the arts in cultural apologetics. Mark and his wife, Rachel, have two grown-up children, and they live in Maidenhead, Berkshire.

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