By Alan Cross
One night in early 1348, a rat scuttled down a street in Florence, Italy. It was a stowaway on a merchant’s cart hauling goods from the port of Livorno. Or perhaps it came with cargo from a ship docked somewhere on the east coast carrying goods from Greece, Crimea, and other points East.
Hitchhiking in the rat’s black fur were fleas infected with the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the trigger for bubonic plague. As a result of Florence’s non-existent sanitation and hygiene practices, the rat population exploded, and with it, cases of the Black Death.
By the end of the year, Florence had become an epicentre of the pandemic. And in just three years, 50,000 people – half the city’s population – had died.
But a strange thing happened. The plague began to change humanity’s view of the world. People began to question their very existence and the reality around them. Instead of being focused only on the church and making it into heaven, people started pondering their current situation as living beings. This new attitude, which we now call humanism, came to dominate the discourse of scholars, intellectuals and artists.
This radical shift in thinking led to the Renaissance, which took stagnant European society from the Middle Ages to the modern age. Florence (and Italy in general) entered a period where much great art was produced, from painting and writing to architecture and poetry. In fact, the term “Black Death” (mors nigra in Latin) first appeared in a poem written in 1350 by a Belgian astronomer named Simon de Covino.
Music, of course, was also greatly affected.
After centuries of creating music based around Pythagorean tuning, a new musical language based on polyphony emerged. The printing press – a Renaissance invention – made it possible to distribute sheet music across the continent. We began to see our first musical stars in the form of composers and performers.
Let’s skip ahead a few hundred years. As the world’s population recovered, Europe was hit with a series of plagues. Henry VIII spent a time in self-isolation as a result from the Sweating Sickness outbreak of 1529. Then a great epidemic hit London in the early 1600s.
Once again, anxious times led to an outbreak of great art. Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra in 1606. And at exactly the same time, composers like Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel began musical experiments that would later be known as the Baroque movement, something that would influence music for centuries to come.
Again, fast-forward a couple of hundred years. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, one of the unhealthiest cities in the world was New Orleans. The heat, humidity, the swamps, and the constant visits by ships from the Gulf, the Caribbean, and beyond, made it a transit point for disease like influenza (a worldwide outbreak in 1889-90 killed at least a million people), cholera, encephalitis, yellow fever, and more bubonic plague. Yet New Orleans found time to invent both ragtime and jazz, the dominant form of North American music during the first half of the 20th Century.
When jazz spread everywhere in the 1920s, was that a joyful reaction to the end of the Great War, or an expression of relief after the Spanish flu of 1918-1920 burned out? Maybe both.
Now think about where we are today. It’s dire for the music industry. No one’s touring. Music venues are closed. Music sales have cratered to their lowest level since the 1960s. Even streaming is down, as people look to other sources of entertainment to pass the time while they’re locked down. Musicians, crew, promoters, agents, managers – everyone associated with the art and business of music has been sidelined from their usual ways of working.
But it might not be all bad. Already artists have found creative ways to reach out to the public through various forms of live streaming. Others are inevitably using this time to write, and experiment, and record at home. How many bored young people have finally picked up that guitar, or sat at a piano, only to discover that they have a natural talent for music? Manufacturers have made synth apps available for free so that people can fool around with them. Will that result in something unexpectedly great? I bet it will.
When this is all over, we could find ourselves with more great music than we know what to do with. The fall of 2020 and the early months of 2021 has the potential to be very exciting. And while virtual concerts and live streams will continue, society wants to be physically present when art is on display. The gigs and the tours will come back.
Meanwhile, if you’re an artist, keep a daily diary. Write down everything you’re feeling and any observations you have of the current condition of humanity. Document what’s going on the best way you know how. Who knows what kinds of creative breakthroughs will result?
Above all, hang in there. Stay safe and stay healthy. Concentrate on what you do best. As in the past, these anxious times will inevitably produce great art. And you just might be the person to do it.