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Queen Mary playlist: Covid-19

Queen Mary's Director of Music, Paul Edlin has compiled a playlist designed to remind us of the power and relevance of music, especially in surreal times such as these.  


Listen now on Spotify:

Paul has also shared moving and interesting notes on each work included which you can follow as you listen along, please see below. 

Notes from Paul Edlin on his Covid-19 playlist:

Our own Principal wisely pointed out that ‘science is vital for life and that art makes life worthwhile’. In these somewhat surreal times when we are confined to our homes, isolating ourselves physically from others, and when the news generates inevitable feelings of concern and anxiety, the arts come into their own. Art, be it literary, dramatic, visual, musical, etc, provides our mental stimulation and solace while we rely on science to be able to maintain our physical health.

This playlist is designed to remind us all of the power and relevance of music. Some works are connected with the current moment in time, be it date wise or because of the state of current affairs, others are connected with healing or personal illness, or even plagues. But each work reveals a special beauty and evolves out of circumstance.  Not all movements are included of larger works, but do please listen to the complete works if you can. They are easy to find on Spotify or similar platforms.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Bach’s great passions tell the Easter story vividly, and Erbarme dich, mein Gott (“Have mercy Lord, My God, for the sake of my tears”) from the St. Matthew Passion is relevant to recent weeks with Easter just having come to an end. What many don’t know is that Bach suffered very poor eyesight in later life. Myopia and/or probable cataracts setting in in his sixties.

Bach’s increasing disability did not prevent his extraordinary levels of creativity, and his Art of Fugue, written in the final years of his life (and remaining unfinished at his death) demonstrates the composer’s fascination with symmetries and intricate mathematical concepts. Here are the first and last movements.

Ellis Marsalis (1934-2020)

The great jazz educationalist and father of Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis has just passed away from Covid-19. The impact of the Marsalis family on American music has been profound, so it’s well worth listening to some of the exceptional music they have made.  Here is the Marsalis family performing Swinging at the Haven.

Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377)

Self-isolation was particularly relevant to French composer Guillaume de Machaut who survived the Back Death. Following this plague of 1348-50, the ‘ballade’ had become one of the most popular secular forms. Machaut composed many such works, and one of his most beautiful derives from his story Le Livre dou Voir Dit. It is called Nes que on porroit.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven’s health issues are well known, but at this time when escape to the country can be only a dream for very many, perhaps a reminder of Beethoven’s pastoral tone poem – his sixth symphony – is timely. And this year is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and many celebratory events will have been cancelled.

Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474)

Music was as of particular solace in the Black Death, and Guillaume Dufay’s O Sancte Sebastiane is considered particularly important for those coping with the disease. The piece tells of the martyrdom of St Sebastian and is a symbolic representation of the Black Death itself.  

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

The great city of Venice has endured many dark times because of illness. A plague was carried to Venice by an embassy led by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi's confidante Striggio, and this saw the city’s population fall by 45,000 to 100,000 in 1633. The economic effects of this were significant. But this did not stop Monteverdi’s creativity and from 1637 he wrote much of his greatest music, including his opera Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, of which the aria Di misera regina is notable.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Tuberculosis has impacted on many people, and composers from Henry Purcell to Igor Stravinsky suffered from the disease. The disease impacted heavily of Stravinsky’s life, particularly in the 1930s, but his music from this very same period contains the dynamic Symphony in CIt is hard to find anything other than bright optimism in this very refined neoclassical work. There is a direct relevance between Stravinsky and Venice. The composer loved this city and is buried alongside his wife in the city’s cemetery, very close to Diaghelev’s own grave.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Wagner also loved Venice and was, in fact, his last home where he died. His opera Parsifal is one of the great Eastertide works and refers directly to issues of healing. The Good Friday Music is a particularly tranquil moment. But Wagner’s wife Cosima had this to say: R[ichard] today recalled the impression which inspired his "Good Friday Music"; he laughs, saying he had thought to himself, "In fact it is all as far-fetched as my love affairs, for it was not a Good Friday at all – just a pleasant mood in Nature which made me think, 'This is how a Good Friday ought to be'".

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Copland’s hauntingly beautiful work for trumpet, cor anglais and strings Quiet City evokes such a place. However, the real symbolism of the work is best described by Copland himself as "an attempt to mirror the troubled main character of Irwin Shaw's play" Quiet City. 

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Mahler’s physical illness manifested itself in his heart condition (he died from subacute bacterial endocarditis). But another ‘illness’ was his love for his narcissistic wife Alma (nee Schindler) whose behaviour surely contributed considerable angst. (That said, Mahler himself was not easy to live with by all standards!). His beautiful Adagietto is the inner core of his mighty fifth symphony. Written as a love song for Alma in the early part of their relationship, it is often better known as the theme music in Visconti’s film Death in Venice.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

Bartok was one of the first civilians to be treated with penicillin. Without it, Bartok could never have composed his Concerto for Orchestra, arguably his most famous and popular work.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

Holst battled against asthma and debilitating neuritis in his right hand. This directly impacted on the way he composed – an often literally painstaking process. His famous The Planets Suite was originally composed for two pianos, and it took the composer many months to orchestrate it, simply because the physical process of writing for full orchestra played havoc with his neuritis. The concept behind the work is less scientific and more astrological. 

Let us now consider some pure escapism, and enjoy some music created by people from various parts of the world.


Gamelan from Central Java: Srepegan

France and Australia: 

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) (orchestrated by Percy Grainger): Pagodes


Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996): A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden


John Adams (born 1947): Tromba Lontano

South America:            

Buena Vista Social Club perform Chan Chan


Ravi Shankar (1920-2012 - Ravi Shankar would have been 100 on 7 April 2020): Overture to Opera Sukanya


Qigang Chen (born 1951): ‘Water’ from The Five Elements

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

German composer Richard Strauss was deeply disturbed by the impact of WW2, especially the destruction of the Munich Opera House, where so many of his great operas were performed.  Metamorphosen is a poignant work that symbolises that mix of past, present and future.  You can either enjoy it with the full 23 solo strings performed by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan, or in the version for smaller string ensemble performed earlier this year by some of our own students at Barts Pathology Museum. Here is a link:

If you’d like to hear some of our many outstanding student musicians on YouTube, please subscribe to Queen Mary Music Society at

I hope you enjoy this playlist and finds its contents stimulating.

Paul Edlin, Director of Music



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