The German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht once wrote, “In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing. / About the dark times.” Indeed, Brecht had better authority on this than most, having lived and written through many of the “dark times” that comprised the first half of the 20th century. This poem in particular, “Motto,” begins Part two of the second major poetry collection Brecht wrote during his exile from Nazi Germany, Svendborg Poems. Published in 1939, the collection was named after the town in which he and his family Spent much of this exile: Svendborg, on the Danish island of Funen. Like the last two lines of “Motto,” many of these poems are both an affirmation and a surrender: They affirm hope, that “singing” and the writing of poetry have the ability to make meaning of the confusion and turbulence of the world, but they surrender to the fact that the singing itself will be circumscribe by that very confusion and turbulence, that though there’s singing, it will necessarily be “about the dark times.”
I am reminded of Brecht’s poems when reading news stories on and watching videos of people in cities coming together (or at least, as much as they can while still maintaining social distance) to make music. While the most prominent videos have come from Italy, where close buildings and balconies make it easier to conduct these sorts of communal events, the trend has since spread around the world and to cities in the U.S. such as Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, New York City and the city closest to me, Boston. Online, musicians have been attempting to perform together over video conference platforms. For example, a student at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, Shelbie Rassler, organized a performance of her arrangement of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s 1965 hit song “What the World Needs Now is Love,” which included around 75 students and faculty from Boston Conservatory and the Berklee College of Music.
As an English and Classics major in a society where STEM subjects are valued above other subjects, I often question the relevance of what I study to the world around me. The thought that I could, perhaps, be helping more people, contributing more to the world, if I’d chosen to study something more “practical” has continued to haunt me throughout my time at Cornell.
However, videos of people making music from their balconies and in front of the computer, as well as the proliferation of quarantine playlists, have asserted the necessity of the arts to our well-being and survival as a species. Such efforts, in contrast to that terrible, almost universally lampooned video of celebrities trying to stage a sing-along of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” demonstrate the power of music to build communities and connect people with one another, providing a visceral knowledge that someone else feels what we feel. Like Brecht’s “Motto,” they affirm the human imperative of art and its contribution to meaning-making inasmuch as they conform to the circumstances of these socially distant times.
Although music and art don’t have magical healing powers (I’m the sort of person who tends to frown upon the sometimes simplistic view of art as therapy), I have often found that they unblock emotions that the grind of daily life forces me to suppress out of the necessity to function in the world. In doing so, art furnishes me important opportunities to simply give into feeling, to even discover and grasp new feelings I don’t have the exact terminology for, to sometimes feel that my life is part of the broader fabric of human experiences transcending time and place.
In another one of the Svendborg Poems, “In Dark Times,” Brecht writes, “They won’t say: when the walnut tree shook in the wind / But: when the house painter crushed the workers. / They won’t say: when the child skimmed a flat stone across the rapids / But: when the great wars were being prepared for. / They won’t say: when the woman came into the room / But: when the great powers joined forces against the workers. / However, they won’t say: the times were dark / Rather: why were their poets silent?”
Perhaps that’s good a reason to sing as any.
Ramya Yandava is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at email@example.com. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Thursdays this semester.