Peggy Walt


Public domain image of Beethoven, Getty images

We should be heading out the door tonight for the Beethoven Eroica concert. A short walk down our snow-covered street, turn left to the concert hall. (Yes, it’s snowing in Nova Scotia on March 26. Sigh.). For more than 25 years we’ve lived in this old house and been extremely lucky to live so close to the hall. (Confession: I’ve been known to put my coat on at 7:15 pm, get to the hall at 7:20, meet Hubby at the stage door – he kindly takes my coat and puts it with his stuff backstage – and slide into my seat at 7:25; Presto).

Our friend Maestro Bernhard Gueller would have been conducting tonight, having made the very long trip via many airports and time zones from South Africa’s sun to Nova Scotia’s snow. No doubt we would have socialized with him, enjoying a meal at a Greek restaurant or a plate of nachos post-concert at the Lord Nelson. (Mmm….Lord Nelson nachos.)

Instead, of course, Maestro Gueller didn’t leave South Africa, the orchestra didn’t rehearse this week, and the concert hall will be silent tonight.

Today, I’ll join in a live webinar with Canada’s Minister of Canadian Heritage with 499 of my arts colleagues from across the country, worried and concerned about the viability of our symphony orchestras, ballet companies, book publishing firms and other cultural organizations. We are all hoping for hopeful news – that our carefully-written, nay, slaved over, grant applications will somehow be processed and funds will continue to flow, to provide at least one level of stability to our teetering industry. We’ll talk about the days when concerts will resume and artists will get back to work.

For now, concerts are cancelled or more euphemistically, postponed. Singers, conductors, instrumentalists are all out of work, with carefully planned concert tours and travel arrangements, some years in the making, gone in the blink of an eye. Concertgoers are being asked to consider donating their tickets back if they can afford to, in order to help arts organizations from going out of business.

The losses to the arts are staggering. Millions of dollars in contracts have evaporated through the force majeure clause. Before this, did we even think about force majeure? It was one of those things you read and kind of smiled at while contemplating the satisfaction of getting paid for something you love to do and that you do well, something you have trained for your entire life.

Maybe if there is an upside, it’s that players and conductors now see how the other half lives, the spouses that don’t fall under what I mentally refer to (with the greatest of respect) as “the tyranny of the downbeat.” Over the years with a classical musician, there have been many times I’ve wondered, what is life like without the downbeat? Our life together has tick-tocked around 10-12:30, 2-4:30 (rehearsals) and 7:30 (concerts). Don’t be late.

Pre-pandemic, Hubby was out a minimum of three-four nights every week, sometimes more during the season. All appointments, teaching, family celebrations, holidays, and other work revolves around that fixed rehearsal/concert cycle, with its drop-dead downbeat. Now there are no concerts but also not much else either in the way of conflicting schedules!

Sure, everyone has a schedule. School starts at a certain time, shifts begin, Shabbat arrives, one is expected to arrive on time to the office. But many people now also have more fluid work schedules, or shift work, or work from home and job-sharing. Not orchestral musicians. (Maybe there are job-sharing symphony players: “You take the first couple of movements of the Eroica, I’ll take the Siegfried Idyll…”).

No, the downbeat is rarely late, except if you live in a place where from time to time there are power outages (I can imagine such a place). Concerts have fixed times, and union contracts mean that orchestral players must be in their chairs by a certain time before each rehearsal and concert. That’s the gig. So now, with all that off, musicians are filling their days and evenings with practicing, teaching online, staying in shape as best they can and making YouTube videos of themselves or small ensembles. They can do it when they want, their days being full of unlimited rubato.

Once when we were dating, I made Hubby a nice dinner and after we ate he left in lots of time for a concert in a downtown church. As I cleaned up, the phone rang, and he whispered from the other end: “Do you hear that?!” “It sounds like music,” I replied cautiously. “It is, and I’m not playing it! Concert was at 7, not 7:30!” That only happens about once in a musician’s career, I’m thinking. I imagined his quivering stand-mate eyeing the approaching cello solo. Oy.

Last week my husband hung up his concert tails and asked me, “Will I wear them again?” Our eyes met, and mine filled with tears. Maybe he’s wondering how many more years left for the downbeat, and how many of them will be lost to this pandemic. And are younger players asking themselves, “How will I get a job now? Should I think about something else?”

Younger and less young musicians all need to bridge the Covid Cavern, and some governments around the world recognize that; Germany has announced a 50 billion Euro ($77 billion) fund for the arts. It will help self-employed individuals and small businesses, even newspapers. Freelancers can get aid for six months and there is emergency legislation for publicly funded institutions and museums.

Thankfully, self-employed workers in Canada will be eligible for some relief too, our Prime Minister has said, bless him, and we hope that even more rescue measures for the arts will be established. In Nova Scotia, we’re thankful that our orchestra is one of a few that has been able to pay out the current season’s contract. This speaks to the level of support, stewardship, good management and love that our community has for our beloved orchestra – bravo, us!

I’ve mentioned that our trip to Vilna is also postponed. In preparation, I had read Herman Kruk’s incredible 700 plus page Vilna Ghetto diary, The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania, one of the world’s greatest wartime memoirs. Kruk includes descriptions of concerts and theatrical presentations in the Ghetto, but grimly the realist, he doesn’t sound like much of a fan: “You don’t make a theatre in a graveyard.” He did approve of the Ghetto’s library, which he supervised, calling it “a real cultural centre.” In the Library, they made lists of the types of books being borrowed, the age groups reading certain genres, and there were even fines if books weren’t returned on time. I know, because I found Shimon’s great uncle on the list of borrowers in the Yad Vashem records online. Would love to know what he was reading.

In the Ghetto there were classes for musically gifted children and concerts by cantors. A play called Green Fields by Yiddish playwright Peretz Hirschbein was performed seven times, as recorded by Kruk. Yiddish and Hebrew choirs prepared “oratorios, chorales, opera, not-yet-performed folk songs.” Art-making and presentation went on and was valued. How brave, how heroic, how human.

There was a much-documented array of concerts in the ghetto set up for propaganda purposes, Theriesenstadt, with chamber music, recitals, operas and the presentation of the still performed children’s opera, Brundibar. Music continued to be made, taught and performed under unimaginable conditions during the Shoah, from string quartets at the gates of Auschwitz to choral concerts in the Vilna Ghetto. There was danger, there was risk, there was disease such as typhus, and other less than ideal conditions: pianos with no legs, no music (or not enough), an abundance of some orchestral instruments and none of others, musicians dying. Pianists including Alice Herz-Sommer played recital after recital in Theriesenstadt, never returning to the sane level of concertizing after the war was over. Instead, she immigrated first to Jerusalem where she dearly loved her students, and then continued to practice for hours each day for as long as she could for the remainder of her 110 years in London: “Music saved my life and music saves me still…I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion.”

Now, we’re connecting through music in so many ways, whether it’s recordings or livestreams or digging out the vinyl. Music is soothing us, invigorating us, and calling us to action, from the guy playing bagpipes outdoors in my neighbourhood to tenors serenading their neighbours on Italy’s balconies. There’s every genre for every taste – hip hop to Broadway karaoke parodies. And devoted teachers like my husband continue to provide valuable lessons to their eager students via Skype and Zoom.

Beethoven’s hero was Napoleon (until he wasn’t). Our heroes are frontline healthcare workers, grocery store clerks, and musicians.

In our isolation, we continue to make and love music, but the downbeat is taking a rest for a while. How we long – we long – for its return.


“Our democratic society needs its unique and diverse cultural and media landscape in this historical situation, which was unimaginable until recently,” said Grütters. “The creative courage of creative people can help to overcome the crisis. We should seize every opportunity to create good things for the future. That is why the following applies: artists are not only indispensable, but also vital, especially now.”

– German Culture Minister Monika Grütters

About the Author
Peggy Walt has worked for 40 years in the arts and culture sector in Nova Scotia, Canada. She's writing a book on the search for what happened to her husband's family during the Holocaust and her conversion to Judaism in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Nonfiction at King's University in Halifax.
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