I haven’t been able to listen to music. Since October 7th, I haven’t been able to listen to music. Since a brief family holiday in the north of Israel, the country where I live, was cut short by the news of the massacre.
‘Massacre’ is a word that hardly does justice to what Hamas and its allies did on that day. ‘Massacre’ tells you about indiscriminate killings; it doesn’t evoke anything of the people killed, from babies to the very elderly. It doesn’t tell you about the rapes. It doesn’t tell you about the torture of every possible kind. It doesn’t tell you about the taking of some 200 hostages and who knows what’s happening to those poor people? It doesn’t tell you about much more that happened and that I won’t write about here because you wouldn’t be able to sleep.
In such cases, language begins to lose its meaning. And if language has no meaning, it also loses its own internal music. So the things you say every day become dulled, lifeless. That rubs off on you.
And I haven’t been able to listen to music, my comfort, my friend – and not to mention, as a former Editor of Gramophone Magazine and music critic, my work – since as long as I can remember. Whenever I was sad, Verdi’s Falstaff would cheer me up. Whenever I needed comfort, Vaughan Williams’s London symphony was there for me. There was music for every occasion, every emotion, every moment it was needed.
But how could I listen to music when every hour has brought fresh and terrible revelations, and battles, and thousands of rockets across Israel? When you try to work or to volunteer and around you, you hear the thud of explosions in neighbouring cities, and in your head you hear the screams of those poor people? And what place has music when every second you feel an urgent imperative to check the news for the latest updates, in this war that feels like a war for the future of the country? And when your own family, like almost every family in this tiny country (and many more than yours), has suffered a loss this week?
So music, a thing that sometimes feels closer to a religion than a pastime, has had no place. It was, for the first time, irrelevant. And what could I do, how does one find comfort, get through these darkest of times, without it?
And then, last night, I heard the poetic speech that President Biden gave before leaving Israel, having arrived earlier the same day on a solidarity mission. His delivery was halting, but as he spoke unflinchingly yet feelingly of the terrible feeling of losing family members – clearly reliving the tragic deaths of his own wife and son in a car crash – there was such humanity, and such deeply touching wisdom, that something in me was reawakened.
“You’ll smile when you pass a place that reminds you of them,” said the President, “That’s when you know — when a smile comes to your lips before a tear to your eye — that’s when you know you’re going to fully make it. That’s what will give you the fortitude to find light in the darkest hours when terrorists believed they could bring down — bring you down, bend your will, break your resolve. But they never did, and they never will.”
There was life, and music, in his words. And suddenly I was in tears. I could breathe deep breaths again. And suddenly, urgently, I wanted to listen to music, to the ferocity and beauty and sadness of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony (in a recording by that most sensitive of conductors, Bernard Haitink). And I listened to it all the way through, and thank God, music found its way back to my soul. As I knew it must. And music will come back to this country. As we know it must.