Staying Composed: Classical Music In The Time of COVID-19

In classical music capitals like Vienna, Salzburg and Berlin, and around the world, artists find themselves in precarious positions with COVID-19 shutdowns. But maybe there's a sweeter tune tomorrow?

The abandoned orchestra pit in the opera house of the Theater Magdeburg.
The abandoned orchestra pit in the opera house of the Theater Magdeburg.
Manuel Brug

BERLIN — This year, Lent truly is a time when people are going without. The weeks leading up to Easter would usually be one of the busiest times of the year for singers, musicians and orchestras. A cantata here, an oratorio there. The holiday is a lucrative business for the music industry. Now, however, instead of arias being sung in cathedrals, we are hearing laments. Instead of redemption, we are surrounded by a plague. Coronavirus is having a devastating effect on a peak musical season that was already struggling to survive.

A flourishing music industry has grown around the six weeks of Lent. The hotel and travel industries also fill their piggy banks at this time of year. The air is filled with the sound of choral singing in the air and the ringing of cash registers.

Now, all has fallen silent. The major Easter music festivals in Salzburg, Baden-Baden and Berlin have been called off, as has the long weekend of concerts in Lucerne with Teodor Currentzis, and the spring concert festivals in Graz and Rügen, which usually offer an escape in idyllic, crocus-sprinkled fields at this time of year.

Even the Oberammergau Passion Play has been put off until next year. The opera and classical music festival scheduled to start on 1st May in Schwetzingen, famous for its asparagus fields, has been canceled, and the Theater an der Wien in Vienna has canceled the premieres of Andrea Breth and Asmik Grigorian, both scheduled for May. The Vienna Festival (due to start on May 15th) is still considering its situation amid the corona outbreak.

In England, it took some time for everything to close down because of the virus but now the reaction has been decisive. Many of their cultural institutions are charitable foundations and could easily fold due to lack of income. The Arts Council in Britain is also less well subsidized than its German counterpart.

Grange Park Opera Festival and Garsington Opera have called off their entire season for 2020. Glyndebourne, the mother of all privately funded country house opera festivals, is not expecting to see picnickers laying out their blankets on the green grass of the Sussex Downs until July 14th at the earliest. This means that its opening opera, Barrie Kosky and Robin Ticciati's production of Poulenc's Dialogue des Carmélites, will not be put on for a live audience.

Members of the orchestra and choir at the Met in New York, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the Australian Opera in Sydney have already had their salaries stopped.

In Germany, the situation isn't much better. In France, Franck Riester, the Minister of Culture who has tested positive for coronavirus, has already promised 22 million euros of emergency funding for the arts. In contrast, his German counterpart, Monika Grütters, and Berlin's culture senator Klaus Lederer have offered nothing more than sympathetic words. But there's a crisis brewing in our cultural centers here too.

Musicians aren't currently earning any money.

One telling example is the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which has been running for 22 years and is made up of 54 musicians from 16 different nations, as well as 15 administrative staff. As an organization, it has no reserves to fall back on. The orchestra is based in Berlin, but the musicians all pay taxes in their home countries and only meet at the venues where they are giving guest performances for projects across the world, which serve to finance the ensemble.

This is an organization with strong connections and residencies, which builds its program around world-famous guest artists as conductors or soloists. But now, it has been forced to call off all appearances for the next two months. Flights and hotels have already been booked, and in many cases cannot be refunded. In the early days of the corona crisis, there was a rush to save everything that could be saved. But the orchestra still has liabilities reaching into the hundreds of thousands. Their total losses will reach around 2.5 million euros by summer, according to the orchestra's managing director Michael Adick.


Man playing guitar on an empty street. — Photo: Priscilla Du Preez

Musicians aren't currently earning any money, either. A few are still working for other orchestras; Others were also employed as teachers, but now all their earning opportunities have disappeared.

The Heidelberg Spring Music Festival, where the MCO is the resident orchestra, has been called off. There is still hope while their partners for other summer engagements are understandably playing their cards close to their chests, except for – of all places – the Beijing Music Festival.

They are already preparing their autumn season and planning to host the MCO. However, if decisive action isn't taken in Germany —which is still an international leader in global classical music networks — the ensemble will collapse, and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra will be consigned to history.

The musicians of the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra, which underwent an enforced merger only a few years ago, have donated 20,000 euro to an emergency fund. Unions and lobby organizations such as the German Music and Culture Councils are working behind the scenes, calling for a basic income of 1,000 euro for the next six months for freelance artists, who have few rights in Germany. They are at the heart of the country's cultural life but often earn little more than 13,000 euro a year.

Like everything else in the world, this industry was becoming too fast, too global.

Looking calm and composed, a little like a modern Oracle of Delphi, Sonia Simmenauer watched from her home office as everything fell apart around her. She runs one of the most respected classical music agencies, based at the Maison de France in Berlin, with 16 colleagues whose hours and salaries she now has to cut. She knows that she doesn't need to worry about some of the artists she represents. "They will survive three months sitting at home and reflecting, but many, especially those who are just starting out in their careers, are living hand to mouth. And now they have nothing to survive on."

After a hectic initial period of changing bookings again and again, then finally canceling appearances last week. Simmenauer is now tidying up and working on what is left. "Getting everything in order is a good way of coping with the anxiety that is affecting everyone in our society, as it is about our very existence." There will unavoidably be losses over the next few months: agencies, ensembles, people's careers, entire festivals. Sonia Simmenauer is sure of that. She is skeptical about government help. "We agents are very small fish. It will be a long time before any support trickles down to us."

But she has hope: "Things will pick up again and then we will see what is left. And maybe everything will be less hectic, calmer. Like everything else in the world, this industry was becoming too fast, too global."

She asks, "Why do we always have to fly all around the world? Can't we make the most of the musicians available in our local area?"

The coming months will be an interesting experience. What kind of projects will the musicians suddenly cut off from the rest of the world think up? What kind of solutions will they find for the immediate future? "And for our work in the agency, we are finding new ways of communicating," says Sonia Simmenauer. "I'm very interested to see how much of that we keep on after this is over."

And, of course, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra has created a hashtag of hope for these dark days: #KeepPlaying.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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