By Peter Severson
On my first Sunday morning at Princeton, I roused myself from Buyers Hall early enough to get to the Chapel for worship. Some mixture of tradition, habit, and curiosity landed me in a pew near the back. I’d sat in a similar spot for Opening Exercises the week before, awestruck by the sheer size and improbability of the edifice in the middle of campus. Fifteen years on, I don’t remember much about the service except the singing. The Chapel Choir sent sacred music aloft into the soaring stone arches, balm for an anxious freshman soul, and before the singers finished the first anthem, I’d resolved to try out. We sang Aaron Copland’s “The Promise of Living” on my first Sunday as a new member of the bass section — a crisp fall morning for a celebration of the harvest — and four years later, on my last Sunday as a senior and choir president, Steven Sametz’s “I Have Had Singing.”
In the years before and after Princeton, choral singing has brought me gifts beyond counting: community, solace, joy, friendship, peace. I grew up singing in church, following the rich tradition of Lutheran music, and of late had found both sacred and secular ensembles to join in the surprisingly choir-rich Denver area. Friends and I take every opportunity to sing together, too: pop songs in the car, old folk tunes on guitar around the campfire, and all manner of music for weddings, funerals, ordinations, and other occasions of great ceremony in life.
This was the rich tableau that accompanied my life, and the lives of millions of people in the United States and around the world, before the pandemic. Now, choral singing exists largely in a kind of suspended animation, an activity relegated to the very last pages of reopening plans. The very premise of ensemble singing is the collective intake and expulsion of air, the kind that can be described with most etymological accuracy as conspiracy: the act of breathing together. As the global pandemic drags on, it frays not only our nerves but the fabric of community itself. Whether it’s singing in a choir or standing next to someone on the train, we are now led to suspect our neighbor’s very breath. Singing together safely is not possible now, and in my bleaker moments of despair, I can’t help but wonder: Will we ever trust one another enough for it to be possible again?
The pandemic has been an unmitigated fountain of grief, touching virtually every person on Earth. There is the immediate pain of hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the United States alone, along with legions more sickened and chronically impaired. There is, too, the more insidious grief of disconnection: the severing of casual, spontaneous, serendipitous encounters between people. Some of us may have created a “bubble” of a few pared-down contacts with whom to maintain a connection, while others have faced down the pandemic’s isolation largely alone. I can’t help but have deep sympathy for those who clamor for reopening and a “return to normalcy.” On most days, I’m one of them. We are so desperate for connection with one another that we will risk our lives to realize it. The pandemic has put me through the stages of grief a dozen times, cycling from depression, to anger, to bargaining, to acceptance, round again. As I contemplated what to write in my annual Christmas letter, I was tempted to state plainly that 2020 was the worst year of my life. It is a bitter comfort to know I’m not alone in that.
Perhaps it is cosmic irony that the last day my community choir would sing together for the foreseeable future was my birthday. I had gone skiing with a friend that day in early March, and I took care to return to the city in time to clean up and race down to the Presbyterian church where our choir, the Colorado Chorale, rehearsed. We had been planning for a 50th-anniversary gala for the organization in April, and a concert that would bring together past members and conductors to launch us into the future. That evening, there was a little bit of nervous tittering about cases of the novel coronavirus popping up in Colorado, but otherwise, the rehearsal proceeded normally. I sang shoulder to shoulder with the placid confidence that there would be many more Tuesday-night rehearsals ahead.
Our artistic director, however, was evidently troubled. Around the time of our standard mid-rehearsal snack break, he informed us that we’d be heading home early. The executive board needed to meet to discuss the future of the season. We gathered in a circle around the perimeter of the entire room — no small feat for 80 singers — and sang one last anthem together: the old gospel anthem “Unclouded Day.” We sang a song of joy and longing, oblivious to the looming inflection point in history. O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise: O they tell me of an unclouded day.
Musical organizations of all kinds came to a screeching halt in March: choirs, symphonies, theaters, operas. It’s part of a broader social and economic impact on the arts, which have mounted up losses in billions of dollars in revenue this year. The Denver metro area is fortunate to have a special tax district to fund cultural arts, which mitigates some of the financial pain. But the social pain is incalculable. All over the world, people have felt the shock of losing access to a cornerstone of human culture. Artistic endeavors are woven into our community fabric, whether we experience them as performers, enthusiasts, or audience members. To be sure, there are slow signs of an emerging comeback: theaters staging plays on golf courses or film festivals converting to all drive-in. Choral singing, however, remains a subjunctive endeavor. Especially as much of the U.S. endures the cold of winter, foreclosing outdoor spaces, it seems unlikely that ensembles can safely gather in person until a reliable vaccine is widely available.
Few gifts are given as freely as the gift of singing. I don’t mean the precise, mellifluous notes of professionals, or even the practiced harmonies of good amateurs. I mean simply the capacity of virtually everyone born to produce sounds beyond speech. Singing can encompass everything from caterwauling in the shower to belting an aria at the Metropolitan Opera. It’s something we do instinctually — children make up goofy songs, drivers hum along to the radio in their cars, the religious sing together in every manner of worship. Singing is a staple of our civic rituals, whether it’s the National Anthem or anthems of protest in the streets.
Amid my own grief and despair, I have also borne witness to small signs of resilience. I have been able to sing a few times with friends who are in my bubble and even to record videos of songs for friends celebrating life milestones. In August, I snagged a ticket to watch the Colorado Symphony’s strings play Mozart, Walker, and Tchaikovsky to a socially distanced crowd of 175 at Red Rocks, an outdoor venue that normally holds close to 10,000 people. And the Colorado Chorale is making a go of biweekly rehearsals on Zoom, which helped us to deliver several recorded pieces for our audience during the holiday season.
In a normal year, the boisterous revelry of Reunions would include a Princeton Chapel Choir Alumni Sing. I didn’t know how fortunate I would be to participate in it during my 10th reunion in the year prior to the pandemic. Nonetheless, the exigencies of virtual Reunions in 2020 brought out the creative determination of the past and present members of the Chapel Choir, who organized a virtual choir to mark the occasion. I dutifully recorded my part, wearing my beer jacket, with a canvas print of the Chapel on my wall in the background. When we gathered over Zoom in late May, our organizers presented the whole choir, alumni and students, with the fruit of our collective efforts: a recording of more than 150 of us singing Stephen Paulus’ achingly beautiful “The Road Home.” (Listen online.) The lyrics speak to the same longing and hope to which all of us are still clinging in some measure, to enduring a grim season in history with forbearance while working toward a day when we will conspire again:
After wind, after rain, when the dark is done,
As I wake from a dream in the gold of day,
Through the air there’s a calling from far away,
There’s a voice I can hear that will lead me home.
I have grieved the absence of my musical community for many months, as all of us have learned what it means to lose the very presence of others around us. Even as we face the long and arduous task of rebuilding a world put asunder by a virus transmitted by breath, we must remember that our breath is also the very spark of life: In breath we speak, we cry out, we protest, we comfort, we celebrate … and we sing.
Peter’s original writing has appeared most recently in Mockingbird, Princeton Alumni Weekly, and TheBillfold. He has been making music professionally from age 12, with significant experience in community song-leading and sacred sounds. His principal instruments are voice, piano, pipe organ, euphonium, and trombone. As a professional director of advocacy, he leads an organization dedicated to fighting hunger and poverty across Colorado. More can be found here: https://www.peterseverson.com/.
This essay originally appeared in the Princeton Alumni Weekly – https://paw.princeton.edu/article/when-song-silenced.