Music for Life

How A Mugging, An Earthquake and Beethoven’s Ninth Created A New Mission for Music

A little after midnight on February 13, 2005, I was walking home from a Valentine’s Day party in Manhattan when I was violently assaulted by three young men.

Time itself slowed down during the attack. I remember thinking that regardless of the outcome – even if I didn’t survive – I would eventually be surrounded by friends and family. 

Could I be sure that my attackers – boys, really, probably in their late teens – had the same support? Would the social and economic forces that likely pushed them into the world of casual violence and street crime stop before destroying them, too? I found that I could not.

The moment this thought crossed my mind, the blows stopped and one of the boys demanded my wallet. I dug into my pockets, but I found instead my electronic metronome. 

“What’s that?” they demanded. 

I explained that it was a metronome, a beat keeper for music. 

“What kind of beat? Like a drum machine?” 

I showed them how it worked: how to align one’s own rhythm with the mechanical heartbeat, all the way up to 208 beats per minute, the limit on most old-fashioned metronomes. I even showed them how to subdivide. They were now fascinated – like all teenagers, curious about that hot commodity of youth – rhythm. Suddenly, a life-or-death moment had turned into a music lesson!

I finally pulled out my wallet, looked up – and they were gone. Perhaps they saw a distant police car; perhaps the metronome proved to be too much of a distraction – but they were gone, and I was still alive. 

I had been studying Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Friedrich Schiller’s text in the “Ode to Joy” appeared to manifest a call for a universal human right to safety, wellbeing and dignity.

The episode left me with a new imperative. My life at the time was in some disarray. I was mostly unemployed, having just graduated from Manhattan School of Music with a diploma in conducting, but I was navigating immigration troubles that had both prevented me from finding work as a conductor and torn a gaping hole in my confidence. 

But with this episode came the realization that I was no victim. I was a musician, privileged by intimate contact with a millennium of great music. I knew that no matter what I did in music, I had to make a difference for people on the margins. Everywhere, there were whole communities who were dangerously unempowered. What was I going to do about it? 

Later that year, a devastating earthquake struck parts of Kashmir on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, killing more than 100,000 people, many of them children. But it happened in a mostly Muslim region and it did not produce the barrage of gripping videos and photographs as in other recent disasters like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or Hurricane Katrina. The coverage barely flickered across our screens before it was gone.

A moment seemed to have come. I had been studying Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Friedrich Schiller’s text in the “Ode to Joy” appeared to manifest a call for a universal human right to safety, wellbeing and dignity. 

The music was rather more insistent, aiming that call squarely at us, the artists living in our oft-sequestered world of classical music. One particular episode jumped out in the context of the turbulent relationship between the West and parts of the Muslim world. 

In the Finale’s “Turkish March,” Beethoven arranges the “Ode to Joy” tune as a drinking song, a genre familiar to audiences of its time, with its rollicking 6/8 meter and male chorus and soloist. 

However, its peculiar combination of instruments – bass drum, cymbal, triangle, piccolo and contrabassoon – would all have been instantly recognizable in their time as instruments of the Turkish military tradition. 

I knew I had to use my craft to make a response – a symphonic call to action of sorts.

Beethoven enforces the drunkenness of the tune by prescribing a hyper-fast tempo, one which has seldom, if ever, been followed. At this “impossible” tempo, the music becomes unstable and the melodic instruments and voices, embodying European musical traditions, are forced to rely on the Turkish rhythm section for stability. This music, by contrast, embodies the Eastern outsider: It had previously been derided as Janissary music in the works of Mozart, Haydn and others. Beethoven’s music declared, in no uncertain terms, that engaging the music, the culture and the very soul of the feared outsider – the immigrant, the Muslim “other” – was indispensable for stability and survival. 

It was a critical message for that moment in 2005, in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Iraq war. Tragically, it means even more for us today in the age of Trump, the Muslim travel ban, Brexit and resurgent nationalism around the world.

I knew I had to use my craft to make a response – a symphonic call to action of sorts. The next few weeks remain a blur. Within two months, I found myself at the helm of an immense global humanitarian concert on the main stage of Carnegie Hall, conducting an orchestra of almost 100. Its members included Glenn Dicterow, then concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and many other principal musicians from the Philharmonic, the MET Orchestra, The Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and so many others. 

We had gathered the support of the United Nations and seven governments, including rivals India and Pakistan. Doctors Without Borders came on board as the beneficiary and we raised almost $95,000 after expenses for the “Millionen” in those hospital camps at the India-Pakistan border. BBC World Service brought their TV cameras, and excerpts of the concert were broadcast to more than 200 million people watching in Asia, Europe and Australasia. 

But the engine of this effort lay within the music itself. Our mission, like Beethoven’s, called for solidarity with people who were largely perceived as outsiders because of their geopolitical identity. 

That concert, Beethoven’s Ninth for South Asia, was the first of a series of humanitarian concerts. To further support them, I founded the non-profit Music For Life International (MFLI) in 2008, the Bernstein family permitting us to use the name of Leonard Bernstein’s now legendary 1987 “Music for Life” benefit concert for AIDS victims. 

An orchestra performs with a photo of flood victims projected on the wall

“Beethoven for the Indus Valley”, a 2011 humanitarian concert at Carnegie Hall, supporting Acumen’s extraordinary work in Pakistan in the aftermath of the cataclysmic floods in 2010. (Photo: Chris Lee, 2011. Projected image by Jacqueline Novogratz.)

In the ensuing years, seven other global humanitarian concerts followed: Among other initiatives, there’s been the Verdi “Requiem” for Darfur refugees in 2007, Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 for the Children of AIDS in 2009, Beethoven’s Ninth again for the current Rohingya genocide. 

MFLI has brought together over 600 musicians from 125 of the world’s great and small orchestras, 32 chamber ensembles and many choirs and opera companies. We’ve partnered with leaders from the public and private sectors, the United Nations and over a dozen major humanitarian and academic institutions, raising $3.3 million for our concerts and causes. We’ve traveled to 11 countries and five continents. Ahead, we have partnerships planned to create permanent music education programs in refugee camps, a training orchestra for young American musicians who will receive social enterprise training, a documentary film about our first decade and more that we cannot yet imagine.

Ours is not a fundraising or humanitarian mission draped over the music from the outside. The mission comes from listening for resonances between the very sound and structure of the music and the “real world.” This is an active kind of listening, moving beyond music to each other, to the world – a listening startled into an adrenalized state of acuity, much like my mugging episode – a unique listening which reveals how music can actually address humanity’s most pressing problems.

Music has the power to build community, to create social impact, to generate powerful messaging and, most of all, to crowdsource new imagination. The violence of that night in Manhattan was transformed by the community created between attackers and victim through music. Our concerts – indeed, all of our work – creates new communities. The power of music to draw people together in this still-young century is among the most potent social forces of our time – a power we must not squander.

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George Mathew

Award-winning Indian-American conductor George Mathew is the founder and Artistic Director of Music For Life International, a global social enterprise based in New York, …more 

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