The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I thought classical music could stand up to anything. Now it feels more vulnerable than ever.

Raymond Andrew and Yfrain Figueroa, right, who work for the Architect of the Capitol, clean up damage at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 7, the day after pro-Trump rioters infiltrated the building. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

It’s been a year since I arrived in D.C., and in re-reading some of my coverage of the year in classical music, I’m finding a few things I’d like to go back and fix. In my first-ever piece for The Washington Post, written last March in lieu of several planned reviews dashed by a then-brand-new pandemic, I asserted that “all music is metaphor.”

Not actually true. I think I thought it sounded nice? In any case, I’ve done some reflection so let me restate: A goodly portion of music has nothing to do with representing anything other than itself, which is perfectly fine. The most recent Cardi B hit, for example, is rather straightforward in its semiotic agenda, and is no less lodged in my cardio playlist as a result. Mea culpa!

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Next, in an April piece on the “Animal Crossing” soundtrack, I claimed that the sunshiny score from the wildly popular Nintendo game “can make just about anywhere feel like an island getaway — even your locked-down apartment.”

Again, way off. One year into the pandemic, our apartment still feels very much like our apartment — perhaps even more so than ever. (Also, we’ve abandoned our virtual island, its residents, and its flora, half-expecting to find the whole thing in flames should we ever log back in.) My mistake.

And last, I was going to zoom in on my misuse in March of the phrase “global coronavirus concerns” — which may accurately represent the mass confusion of the moment, but greatly overstated the degree to which those responsible for controlling the pandemic here were actually, like, concerned.

But now that I’m reviewing the piece that surrounds that phrase — an essayistic assertion that classical music capably counters our overwhelming feelings of uncertainty with “a sense of permanence” — I feel like a larger correction is in order. Maybe even a full retraction.

Okay fine, I take it back. Let me explain.

In a time of uncertainty, classical music provides a sense of permanence

I spent the better part of December celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday by listening to all (and I mean all) of his music. It was a restorative couple of weeks. After a year of ceaseless tumult and cultural vertigo, there was something stabilizing about the experience. Even the darkest, least familiar halls of his music offered a wall to lean on. A standing structure.

From there I made an abrupt gear-switch into the present, listening to brand-new works by dozens of contemporary composers for a showcase feature titled “21 for ’21.” The unfamiliar contours of hours of unheard music provided a fitting score to the unprecedented political upheaval of the new year. The sounds of the future in the making — revealing itself in each instant as though a flashlight were passing over it — offered a solace that surprises seldom do.

21 for ’21: Composers and performers who sound like tomorrow

Just six days into the new year, a mob of people who had promised to storm the Capitol [pregnant pause] stormed the Capitol. I couldn’t feign surprise. I could only feel shock as the vague uncertainty I’d grown accustomed to tightened into an asthmatic procession of unstable moments.

And just like that, none of my go-to stabilizers worked. The Brahms-clarinet kick I was in the throes of came to an abrupt standstill. My trusty Schumann string quartets felt as flat as the vinyl they were pressed into. Every variation of the Goldberg Variations I played slid down the surface of my attention like magnets too weak to cling to a fridge.

The music that I thought could stand up to anything, that I’d consult to restore a sense of sturdiness or revisit a scene of sublime beauty — it all suddenly seemed in peril, unguarded. (If you’ve ever seen Marv Newland’s 1969 short film “Bambi Meets Godzilla,” it’s the best visualization I can offer of this awakening dread.)

So much for that “sense of permanence.” What was happening?

Architecture, like music, has no metaphorical obligations, yet we can’t help but read it like a language. The Capitol, itself, is a symbol of permanence, and its “desecration,” as most termed it, was a reminder of its construction upon a bedrock of the figurative. The fists and flagpoles of the riot itself presented an unlimited buffet of sad ironies to choose from, but the trashing of democracy’s cradle is what will haunt the history of this moment.

Still, as I watched it happen on television, and even now, replaying the footage of my memories, the storming of the Capitol also seems stripped of metaphor: The smashed windows were just broken glass; the slogans scrawled on the walls meant what they said; the dead people were dead.

What did the Capitol represent in that moment to those bashing their way into it? Power? History? Beauty? Or maybe the foundational metaphor of the building — “the people’s house” — was simply too inclusive to leave unsmashed?

This confused gesture of preservation — “saving” democracy by smashing its core, reclaiming one’s house by burning it down, installing chaos as a form of order — feels like the manifestation of a uniquely American nihilism, a penchant for self-destruction. I fear for whatever it trains its gaze on next.

I think of what the rioters put in their crosshairs: a stubborn, slow-changing institution, unresponsive to the people it serves and guarding the status quo for the benefit of an elite few. And then I think about the institutions of what we file under “the fine arts.”

Who do they belong to? Who do they serve? And who are we counting on to protect them as they struggle to survive? Even with new arts-friendly leadership and the expectation of some degree of advocacy at the federal level (a “Dr. Fauci for the arts” really isn’t a bad idea), the arts as we know them are going to face more than just recovery in the post-pandemic era. They need active protection more than passive consumption. They must be restored into a commons.

The trials of the past year have brought forth many of the qualities we already admired about classical music: its resilience, resistance, persistence and endurance.

But permanence? I’m not so sure anymore. If anything, this music that has survived the centuries feels more fragile, more vulnerable than ever. The past 12 months have made one thing clear to me: Take nothing for granted. Stand guard for the things we share. Assuming the music will go on forever is inviting the silence to stay. I regret the error.

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