In a time of national sorrow, works of art that resonate

December 16, 2012

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., our critics — Ron Charles, Ann Hornaday, Sarah Kaufman, Philip Kennicott, Peter Marks, Anne Midgette, and Chris Richards — 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.

Sarah Kaufman, dance critic

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.

Anne Midgette, chief classical music critic

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.

Peter Marks, theater critic

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.

Chris Richards, pop music critic

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 this grim weekend, I also found myself reflexively 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.

Philip Kennicott, art and architecture critic

I think seeking consolation during a tragedy that hasn’t directly affected you is histrionic, and a bad form of sentimentality, and it distracts from urgent and obvious feelings of anger and political determination. Rather than seek solace, we should work to change the society in ways that will help prevent this kind of mayhem. But if one needs some form of distraction, then anything that is dense and polyphonic, because this kind of music reminds us that we can fashion the world in new and better ways, that we aren’t powerless and at the mercy of a flawed society. Perhaps Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

Ann Hornaday, chief film critic

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.

Ron Charles, book critic

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.

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