Music, literature and the arts are for many people indispensable companions through times of great sorrow. As the nation tries to come to terms with the horror that befell Newtown, Conn., Washington Post critics took a moment to meditate on the role of the arts in coping with grief. Here, they share works that have resonated with them in such times.
A tight-knit community in mourning over the loss of its children: This is the subject of Antony Tudor’s transcendent ballet masterpiece Dark Elegies, unveiled in 1937 and accompanied by Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder ( Songs on the Death of Children). I can think of no better work of art to take us into the depths, and out of them. Bone-deep agony, rage and a struggle to survive erupt in brief, pungent bursts, and then Tudor offers a reason to go on: simply to fill out the circle, and take one’s place among the living.
In times of tragedy, classical music comes into its own: Barber’s Adagio for Strings or the Brahms Requiem are widespread cultural signifiers of mourning. After 9-11, I remember the ache of the soprano solo in the Brahms, soaring up innocently singing of future comfort. But music for private mourning is a highly individual thing: some turn to thundering apocalyptic statements, some want quiet radiant innocence. I might put on Schubert’s Mass in E-flat this week, which has elements of both, melded with sheer beauty.
The theater’s wisest human, Shakespeare, is my go-to source of consolation. And it’s The Winter’s Tale that I’m often drawn to at times like these. Because it’s just about the most beautiful play ever written about reconciliation and forgiveness. A father’s blind self-regard leads to the death of his grieving wife — a fatal weakness magically redeemed after he learns tolerance and magnanimity.
When tragedies transcend words, I often turn to a piece of music that uses only three. The titular refrain of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is a mantra in service of the highest and most healing of human emotions. But over the grim weekend, I also found myself cuing up records by the Clash, Public Enemy and Fugazi — loud, defiant albums conceived by protest artists who weren’t interested in starting conversation so much as demanding it. It’s time for our country to demand a conversation about gun control.
For families in search of the cinema of reassurance, it’s tempting to find your softest blanket and head straight for Pixar. Or for grown-ups, the transcendent humanism of a drama like You Can Count on Me or Of Gods and Men. This particular moment, however, inspires not just grief but outrage. Finding Nemo, then Bowling for Columbine. Take comfort, but take action, too.
We usually think of Walt Whitman as the great champion of himself, sounding his “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” but he also wrote our nation’s most moving elegy. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d was composed during that horrible shock that followed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Slow and lovely and steeped in sorrow, these lines still give shape to a whole nation’s unspeakable grief and offer the promise of solace, eventually.