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Music in the Time of Pandemic

Composers from across history have not been strangers to the ravages of plague and pandemic, and the words they use to describe are eerily resonant with us today. From as early as the 14th century Machaut's Jugement dou Roi de Navarre tells of the terror delivered by the Black Death. Here are some chosen lines:

In the year thirteen hundred forty-nine, on the ninth day of November,

I was walking about my room.

And had the air been clear and pure, I’d have been elsewhere;

But it was so dark that the mountains and plains were full of haze.

And so I sheltered indoors...

So there I suffered sadness all alone in my room and thought

How the world in every way was ruled by barstool wisdom:

How justice and truth have been murdered by the iniquity of Greed...

How no one does his duty;

How everyone seeks to deceive his neighbor...

And if anyone refrains from this, every man regards him suspiciously

And says he’s a hypocrite...

Few dared to venture into the open air or talk at close quarters with one another

Because their infected breath corrupted others who were healthy...

And, to be sure, many times I have heard it said and openly

That in thirteen hundred and forty-nine,

Only nine survived of every hundred...

In the early 1400s, an Englishman named John Cooke composed Stella celi, a hymn to the Virgin Mary which refers to the Black Plague which decimated half of Europe, and was followed by pneumonic and septicemic plagues. Its text speaks in incontrovertible terms :

Star of Heaven, who nourished the Lord

and rooted up the plague of death

which our first parents planted;

may that star now deign

to hold in check the constellations

whose strife grants the people

the ulcers of a terrible death.

O glorious star of the sea, save us from the plague.

Hear us: for your Son who honours you denies you nothing.

Jesus, save us, for whom the Virgin Mother prays to you.

The early church acknowledged the omnipresence of death - both corporal and spiritual - in ritual form, such as that of the chant Media vita in morte sumus ("in the midst of life we are in death"), which has set a somber tone to the beginning of Lent since around 750 A.D. (or C.E., if you prefer). Here, a haunting setting by John Sheppard from mid-sixteenth century expresses the power of death with the following text:

In the midst of life we are in death

of whom may we seek for succour,

but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?

Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty,

O holy and most merciful Saviour,

deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death."

The notion of an invisible contagion - or germ theory - was present in the Islamic world even before the Black Plague in the 14th century, and despite Girolamo Fracastoro's essay, De Contagione (1546), which was the first effort at a theory of epidemiology, Western Europe was late in accepting this idea, clinging instead to the miasma theory, which supposed that disease was not passed from person to person, but rather drawn from bad air emanating from rot and decomposing matter in a particular physical location. This massive misdirect in the understanding of disease led to several more centuries of death, and several more centuries of religious camouflage. Christ as physician is rife in Christian theology, as can be found in Bach's Cantata No. 25, titled "Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe," or "There is Nothing Healthy in My Body," written in 1723, just one year after the Plague of Marseille left over 100,000 people dead. After an opening chorus, the first recitative speaks of the "world as a hospital" and "children laid low with sickness," which is followed by an aria which declares:

Ah, from where shall I, wretch, receive counsel?

My leprosy, my plague cannot be healed by any herb or ointment

other than the balm of Gilead.

You, my doctor, Lord Jesus, alone

know the best cure for the soul.

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