The Value of Music: In Dark Times, the Guitar Can Add a Little Light

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From the Fall 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY GRAHAM WADE

On May 25, 2017, I attended a remarkable guitar concert at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, England, featuring John Williams in partnership with John Etheridge and Gary Ryan. Just 72 hours earlier, half a mile away in the same city, a terrorist had detonated a suicide bomb outside a concert by American pop star Ariana Grande, killing 22 people, many of them children, and injuring dozens of others.

At the time, the government estimated  the security risk level  at  “critical,” the  highest  possible, indicating a further terrorist attack was possibly “imminent.” The police patrolled the streets  in groups of five and six, carrying huge automatic weapons—a rare sight in Britain. In various parts of the country, combat troops were deployed alongside the police. The UK had been  in the throes of a general election, but after the bomb went off, political campaigning was postponed for a week to allow a period of national mourning.

The Williams concert, entitled “Six Hands,” was another potent reminder of the creative power of music. John Williams gently thanked the audience at the outset of the concert for just being there. At the end, John Etheridge called for a moment of reflection before the trio performed a very moving second encore.

I was reminded of our feelings immediately after the catastrophe of the 9/11 attack in New York, when many were so devastated by the horror that it seemed futile to practice a musical instrument either on that day or some days following. What is the relationship between making music on the plucked string and total nihilistic bloodshed?

For those who mourn the loss of sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, relatives and friends destroyed in meaningless acts of evil, the grief must be practically inconsolable. Listening to guitar music by Brouwer or Britten, Barrios or Walton, Tárrega or Rodrigo cannot by itself assuage the anguish of bereavement.

But take a step back to consider other elements within the framework of tragedy. In the fanatical Islamic State (which immediately, to their everlasting shame, claimed responsibility for the Manchester bombing), music of all kinds is banned, and if played, brutally punished. Communist and fascist dictatorships hate various forms of music, such as the avant-garde and jazz, preferring compositions that re-create a glorious imaginary golden age of the past, or the bland sound of military bands.


Concerts in many Middle Eastern countries have to be vetted and licensed by government departments. When I performed a guitar recital in Kuwait (a reasonably liberal Muslim country compared to Saudi Arabia or Iran), the organizers needed a permit from the government  before it could take place. It was no coincidence that the Manchester bomber made his attack at a pop concert, nor that terrorists in Paris assaulted the Bataclan nightclub during a show by a rock group. To fanatics of their ilk, all music is regarded as a kind of depravity.

As guitarists, we know that simply taking a guitar out of its case can be spiritually enriching. In other words, we feel better for playing. The more we play, the better it feels. Sometimes the process of studying and improving may seem a struggle. But either way we love it. Both the physical aspects of playing and the expressiveness of music reach down into our hearts and minds and refresh and restore our inner selves.

Similarly, to listen to a concert by a great player such as John Williams is an experience of great intensity and enjoyment, and it also imparts to us a sense of revelation at what is possible in artistic terms on the guitar. We are taken out of our routine responses into a sphere of expressiveness, wonder, and fulfilment.

Such heightening of our faculties is part of the therapeutic, life-enhancing aspect of playing the guitar. Whenever I see a guitarist walking down the street with their guitar case, I always feel, “There goes an optimist!” Go to any guitar festival and you will find a vibrant community, content with a beautiful purpose in life. As musicians, we exist in a positive, creative world, perpetually discovering new aesthetic truths and emotional depths that the earnest study of a musical instrument engenders.

It is very natural for terrorists to hate any sense of fulfilment through art. Anything gloriously human is to be destroyed. For that reason, the beautiful ancient city of Palmyra, in Syria, was razed to the ground—an irreparable loss—as were the ancient Buddhist statues of Afghanistan and countless other archaeological marvels.

To return to my opening thought about the performance at the Bridgewater Hall: The memory of that very special concert will remain with me. The occasion of three eminent musicians presenting their art with such perfection was a true beacon of light in an uncertain world.

Tragically, less than a fortnight after that evening recital, terrorists struck again (this time in London), killing more than 20 again, and injuring dozens of innocent people. Shortly before that, horrendous suicide bombings had been perpetrated in Kabul, Afghanistan.

In the face of all this evil, we can but try to adhere to our values. The sonorities of plucked strings are easily suffocated by the cries of the victims and the blast of war. But ultimately, our dedication to life in all its richness and to art in its many forms is what we live for. We have to continue to believe in the positive goodness of what we are trying to achieve. It is a moral and philosophical question. To be defeated in this leads only to cynicism and despair. 

In honor of those who were killed in the Manchester attack, we offer this moving version of J.K. Mertz’s powerful Elegie, performed by Russian guitarist Asya Selyutina: