Pulling combs through a backwash frame

When the plague hit Milan in 1576, the aristocrats and the governor fled. The bishop, Charles Borromeo, stayed. He made his will, picked out a place in the cathedral for his tomb, and went out to minister to the sick. As both Milan’s most important remaining civic leader and its spiritual guide, Borromeo’s efforts were sometimes at odds. As a public health official, he did much that was prudent, instituting strict protocols for the lay clergy who distributed communion to the afflicted, holding audiences from behind a screen, and, according to his 17th-century hagiographer Giovanni Pietro Giussano, “had, when he left the house, a wand carried in front of him, to keep those in the contagion’s snare away from himself and his assistants.”

But, in 1576, everyone knew that plagues were punishments from God for collective sin, and the atonement was public: large processions of people from all across the city, joining in a parade of penitence. The model was the procession organized and led by St. Gregory the Great in response to the plague that infected Rome in 590; eighty people collapsed along the way, but, at the end, the archangel Michael appeared on top of Hadrian’s Mausoleum and was seen to put his flaming sword back in its scabbard—God’s wrath had been appeased. Borromeo dutifully followed suit, though he did his best to limit the impact, having believers march only with members of their own parish. Eventually, though, Borromeo bowed to the necessity of social distancing. He set up altars in the street so the people could hear mass without leaving their houses. And, having distributed pamphlets of songs and devotions for the processions, he now advocated home use of those as well. Seven times a day, the cathedral bell rang, and the residents of Milan would come to their doors and windows and sing the litanies: “this great city, numbering three hundred thousand souls,” Giussano recorded, “praising God at the same time from all sides… infinite voices resounding and echoing, calling all heaven to help in that court of misery.”

Sound familiar?

Giussano did not, however, record what happened to the church choir section leaders.


Lists of resources for suddenly-bereft freelance musicians and performers in the wake of COVID-19 are starting to show up. This one, by Hannah Fenlon, Ann Marie Lonsdale, and Abigail Vega, is the most comprehensive (and ecumenical) one I’ve seen, but even that’s incomplete. The American Composers’ Forum has a list more targeted to new-music people, for example. A quick look around GoFundMe finds dozens of recently-started (so, caveat emptor, obviously), localized funds—here’s one for DC and Maryland arts freelancers. After throwing some money in a few directions, I’m tempted to save and screenshot the online evidence of this scattershot, ad hoc collection as damning evidence of musical life under late capitalism.

My first recession as a freelancer was 1990 and its dawdling recovery, which gave me an erroneous sense of the relationship between a musical career and the market: work was precarious but just viable during the recession, and precarious but just viable after it, and I thought that musical employment was, in a weird way, shielded from the cyclicality of capitalism by virtue of its own marginality. I was young and dumb! (Believe me, old and dumb is so much more fun.) But even as that early fantasy gradually dissolved, I still figured that capitalism would plod on, girded by its own instinct toward self-preservation. What the pandemic has made clear is how readily the system will feed on itself for even the most fleeting profit. Suicide is an arbitrage opportunity, apparently.

(Anyone who wants to appropriate “Suicide is an Arbitrage Opportunity” as the title of your next anarcho-punk song/album, be my guest.)


Creating the opera “Blue,” about police violence against young black men, was hard yet hopeful work (Washington Post, March 11, 2020)

A preview for a production that was, along with so many others, canceled. It’s currently scheduled to be part of Mostly Mozart at the end of July; go see it if you can. It won’t be rescheduled in DC until 2021-22 at the earliest, I’m guessing, but I hope it’s staged here sooner than later.

These sorts of interview-heavy features can sometimes be a slog to pull together, but this one was a dream: I don’t think I’ve ever left so much marvelous dialogue on the cutting room floor. (I even got to eavesdrop on a rehearsal!) A lot of dedicated people are taking a financial hit because of the cancellation. Forwarding some coffee money to AGMA would be a nice idea.


This newsletter is also a little bit of a preview: the next Score column for the Boston Globe will consider Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Pestis Mediolanensis, a motet-slash-oratorio about Charles Borromeo and the 1576 Milan plague.

I’m not going to stumble through that much 17th-century Italian source material and not get as much mileage out of it as I can. Stay well, everybody. See you (virtually) at the colloquium.

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