My older, smarter brother Joe, a scientist with several decades of experience in assessing risks to public health, assessed news about coronavirus and decided two weeks ago to self-quarantine at home in Virginia.
On the second Saturday of his isolation, he sent a text with an urgent message: Listen to classical music during the pandemic. He practically ordered me to find, in particular, recordings of the works of Franz Schubert, the Austrian who died young, with very few people having heard some of his greatest compositions.
Joe seemed to be a little weepy, or perhaps a little tipsy. Schubert’s music is as melancholy as it is beautiful. It can reach the heart of the most dispassionate person, and it can crush you at an extraordinarily fraught moment like the one we’re living through now.
So you make a martini — or a quarantini — and listen.
“Maybe I am more romantic than I thought,” Joe wrote in his text. “Schubert’s life story is about as sad as one can imagine. Died at 31. Very few had heard his music. He wrote the most beautiful and passionate music.”
Big brother suggested I search Spotify for a recording of Schubert’s “Winter Journey,” and he was adamant that I listen to the composer’s last piano sonatas — No. 19 in C Minor, No. 20 in A Major, No. 21 in B flat Major. Schubert wrote these in his final months, when he knew he was dying.
“No one in his lifetime heard them,” the last text of the evening said. “Listen.”
One might attribute Joe’s edict to gin and vermouth, but this kind of messaging is not entirely unusual. The older, smarter brother often listens to something from any of several musical genres — classical, rock, blues rock, American country, jazz, bossa nova — and he gets very excited. He reports a musical revelation with breaking-news breathlessness, as if he has just emerged from a lab with a cure for despondency.
I’m glad he does. It’s an act of love, really, the desire to share a thing of beauty with others in a fraught time. Beauty is subjective, of course, but I’d rather be underwhelmed than not whelmed at all.
Especially when we’re isolated to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
And so I took big brother’s advice, here at home in Baltimore. I listened to the Schubert sonatas, music from nearly 200 years ago, and found something I might have missed when I was younger, something that deserves to be called an ageless truth about what it means to be human. So much of this life is beautiful, so much is sad.
Understanding that these were Schubert’s last works made me appreciate them even more. He was obviously determined to express himself though he knew the end was near and that his sonatas might never be performed.
It’s a sad story, for sure, but there’s hope in it. Think of the strength it took to create something beautiful at the darkest moment, when Schubert was sick and impoverished. And I’m pretty sure that’s why my brother implored me to listen, and why, in turn, I’m sharing this with you today and suggesting maybe you do the same.
We have never been here before.
The attacks of 9/11 were shocking, and the days and weeks that followed were filled with fear, anger and mourning, but also a rising determination to get back to normal.
Coronavirus stirs even greater anxiety and has the potential to do far more damage to this life we’re living, and for a longer period of time. “What happened to our world?” a friend asked as restaurants and other establishments in Maryland were shuttered by the governor to reduce opportunities for people to spread or contract the virus.
For all our post-9/11 concerns about terrorists and the current president’s obsession with border security, it looks like history will record the biggest threat of our lifetimes as something we cannot see.
And what are we asked to do? We help ourselves, and everyone else, by keeping to ourselves. This will be the most solitary form of collective response to a national emergency in history. After 9/11, we could still give each other hugs, right?
Not this time.
But what I was going to say — the reason I brought up my older, smarter brother and all that business about Franz Schubert — is that there’s plenty we can do during the down time, ways to maintain our humanity even as we’re told to practice social distancing.
And I don’t mean using Facebook or Instagram. I don’t mean Twitter, although both cellist Yo-Yo Ma and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda have used that platform to comfort people with their music.
I’m talking about something that takes a little more effort.
We have to stay informed and follow the news, and if you’re reading this column, you’re probably already there. We have to keep in touch with family and, if working from home, with employers and coworkers. We have to watch out for our neighbors and support friends who own and run small businesses.
But in that other time, in that quiet time alone, when you miss gathering with friends and fellow travelers, when you’re feeling the big chill, go back to the music you love or a book you adore or a collection of poetry you haven’t opened in years. You will find plenty of humanity to sustain you there.