Music in Honor of 9/11

Today marks eighteen years since the September 11th terrorist attacks. Nearly two decades since the country – and the world – were affected by the airplane attacks in New York City, Washington D.C., and Arlington, VA. In honor of today, we look at a few compositions written as a tribute to that fateful day. 

Howard Goodall – Spared

Howard Goodall
(Source: Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

British composer Howard Goodall was in New York on 9/11. He was filming by Washington Square when he watched the planes collide into the World Trade Center. “I stood in the street as the second tower collapsed in front of me and as the tidal wave of dust rushed towards and through me,” he recollected. “We were cut off from the world in central Manhattan, the island sealed by the FBI and all flights grounded, unable to return home for nearly a week.” He was further stressed as false bomb alarms went off nightly in his apartment complex. 

It took several years after the 9/11 attacks for him to compose Spared. Based on the poem by Wendy Cope, Goodall’s piece incorporate a piano and vocals reciting Cope’s poem. Premiering at St. Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, on October 2005, the work carried a similar message of love and hope for the premiere’s audience for the people of Northern Irle. Methodist College’s non-sectarian choir performed at the premiere – the first generation of students living in an era of brokered peace after centuries of conflict. 

Eric Ewazen – A Hymn for the Lost and the Living 

Eric Ewazen
(Source: Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

New York-based Ewazen was also in Manhattan on 9/11, teaching a music class at Juilliard at the time. Ewazen described the piece as a portrayal of the “painful days following September 11th, days of supreme sadness.” He recollected the shock and disbelief as the events unfolded over the radio and streets filled with silent people walking home. Days later, he saw people holding memorials as he walked up Broadway. Candlelight vigils and songs filled the streets as New York City became “a community of citizens of this city, of this country and of this world, leaning on each other for strength and support.” 

Commissioned by the U.S. Air Force Heritage of America Band shortly after the attacks, the piece opens with a solo trumpet as it sets the somber tone. Ewazen also incorporates wind and percussion to make a masterfully crafted tribute to “those lost souls, gone from life, but who are forever treasured in memories.” 

John Corigliano – One Sweet Morning

John Corigliano initially turned down New York Philharmonic’s offer to compose a 9/11 tribute a year after the attacks. He believed it was too soon to write a piece reflecting on the tragedy. Ten years later, the New York Philharmonic and Shanghai Symphonic approached him to compose music in honor of the tenth anniversary – to which he duly accepted. Corigliano found the commission challenging. “How can one hear the music of any dramatic surges without imagining these events accompanying the music – or vice versa?” He then realized he needed to write the piece with words, setting four poems to music from different ages and countries. 

One Sweet Morning is composed of four movements. The first movement, “A Song on the End of the World,” is a poem set to music, written by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. The second movement uses a scene from the Iliad, which details a massacre led by Patroclus. The third movement, “War South of the Great Wall,” is set to an 8th-century Chinese poem by Li Po. Meanwhile, the fourth and final movement is set to the anti-war poem “One Sweet Morning” by the American E.Y. Harburg. 

Joan Tower – In Memory

Initially composed in honor of a late friend Margaret Shafer, Tower’s piece eventually became a work dedicated to the lives lost after the terrorist attacks. “9/11 hit about a month later, and the intensity of the piece got higher,” Tower told Naxos Music Library during an interview. “It veers between pain and love and anger.” 

A string quartet provides instrumentation for this one-movement piece, evoking themes of death, love, and loss. You can hear the build-up to the unfolding events of that day as high emotion, trauma, and varying stages of grief is felt in this piece. 

Steve Reich – WTC 9/11 

Steve Reich
(Source: Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Though the composer himself was not in the City at the time of the attacks, his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter were staying at his Manhattan apartment – four blocks from the site. Steve Reich’s composition is a bold response to the attacks. Written for the Kronos Quartet, the group approached the composer to create a piece using pre-recorded voices to move along with the music. In January 2010, he began composing a bold, modern, yet daring response to the 9/11 attacks. 

WTC 9/11 uses a string quartet and pre-recorded voices. Written in three movements, WTC 9/11 uses recordings from emergency services and interviews with Reich’s neighbors and friends. The first movement, “9/11/01,” uses NORAD air traffic controllers who monitored American Airlines Flight 11 – the first plane to intentionally crash into the North Tower. Violins play against a loud warning beep. The second movement, “2010,” consists of various interviewees Reich recorded. The final movement, “WTC,” includes additional recordings of neighbors and volunteers along with a cellist and a cantor from one of the City’s synagogues singing parts of Psalms and the Torah. The sounds of the warning beep resurge towards the end.

Whereas many commemorative pieces have been sentimental in nature, Reich’s work is an exact opposite. Indeed, WTC 9/11 is chilling if not terrifying. 

John Adams – On the Transmigration of Souls

John Adams
(Source: Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Following John Corigliano’s decline to compose a piece a year after 9/11, the New York Philharmonic approached John Adams, who duly accepted. Composed for orchestra, chorus, children’s choir, and pre-recorded tape, On the Transmigration of Souls premiered a few days after the first anniversary of the attacks on September 19th, 2002. 

Adams began writing the movement in January of 2002. He desired to focus less on the narrative of that unfortunate day and focus more on the loss and grief expressed by the living. John turned to posters at and around Ground Zero, where bereaved families left signs looking for their loved ones. He also incorporated elements of the City itself, taping sounds and noises that create the ‘heartbeat’ of the Big Apple. Adams also looked to the choral music performed in the “old, majestic cathedrals” of Europe. The adult and children choirs are incorporated together rather than separately, creating an ethereal effect, as well as reading the names and other text. Rather than a “requiem” or “memorial,” Transmigration provides people with a “memory space,” as Adams puts it, where people can “go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions.” Adams’ composition was praised. Transmigration was later awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003, and a Grammy Award in 2005 for Best Classical Album, Best Orchestral Performance, and Best Classical Contemporary Composition. 

Nearly 3,000 lives were lost on that day eighteen years ago. Families and friends turned to each other – and their communities – to find comfort. It is during these harrowing moments the art of music is used to speak to the bereaved – providing serenity at a time of uncertainty and chaos. 

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