Music has been composed to inspire and encourage war, to whip up enthusiasm for war, to oppose and protest war, to announce war, accompany war, recover from war, to mourn the dead of war, to celebrate victory, to commemorate and remember war and the dead of war, to describe the effects of war. From war cries and marches to requiems, music has been part of war.
The earliest musical instruments, the drums and flutes and trumpets have been on battlefields until relatively recently and, along with the bagpipes, still figure into military ceremony.
And then there are all of the songs from the patriotic, the morale building, the protests, the propaganda, the grief stricken, the victorious. There are a million of them stretching back as far as as we have evidence. Johnny's Gone for a Soldier, Dixie, Cohan's Over There, Edwin Starr's War!, Peter Gabriel's Games Without Frontiers, David Gilmore's Cruise. I've written a few songs related to war, myself.
Because there is so much music associated with war and because I wanted to find some emotional solace for what I have been witnessing in Ukraine, I decided to listen to mostly western symphonic music from mostly the 20th century. Surely, I thought, with all of the war and composers connected to war, I will find something to listen to. But frankly, I couldn't sit through any one of the pieces.
I listened to Britten's War Requiem, Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, Holst's Mars, and Karel Husa's Music for Prague 1968, Schoenberg's Survivor from Warsaw, Ligeti's Kyrie, even some Shostakovich, but nothing captures the frantic blows of Putin's fist and the chaos and speed with which this destruction has unfolded.
This music is all too formal, too organized, even what used to seem so difficult to listen to. These organized compositions are too serene and intelligent and follow too many rules and take up too much time.
What's happening in Ukraine demands something of an entirely different order. Formal music helps us to frame experience and contend with emotions that are too big, too complex or delicate or traumatized to manage coherently on our own.
The only music suitable for what is unfolding in Ukraine right now is the wailing of banshees and the cries and weeping of keeners.