Editor's note: this article mentions gun violence in a fictionalized manner, and to describe activism against gun violence.
People begin to shuffle, and you start to hear screams from behind you as you realize those sharp sounds aren’t coming from the orchestra’s percussion section. Not knowing quite what to do, you crawl onto the cold, hard floor, and notice blood dripping from some of the seats.
You see other people lying on the floor as well, but they aren’t breathing. As menacing footsteps approach, you hold your breath. After about an hour you hear more rustling, but this time it’s the local authorities, searching for survivors. They find you, and as you relay what you’ve experienced to these men and women in uniform, you wonder if the on-stage musicians made it out safely.
As the days and weeks roll by, you see calls-to-action from arts organizations from across the country and around the world – sentiments that ultimately fail to bring justice to the families of lost loved ones. A series of hashtags and “thoughts and prayers” inspire deeper conversations at the intersection of gun violence and classical music, ushering in a new brand of arts activism that you hope will save future concert-goers from the horrific series of events (and the associated traumas) that you will have to traverse for the rest of your life as you question whether or not you’ll ever decide to return to the concert hall again.
While this story may seem inappropriate, exaggerated, and even far-fetched for many classical concert goers, the reality of gun violence is becoming more widespread and normalized across American society. As of mid-July, 2022, over 300 mass shootings had been reported in the United States, with associated deaths stacking up to over 60. Orchestral and opera venues have long been considered “safe spaces” where issues of systemic racism, patriarchal norms, and class division (among others) have been pushed to the proverbial nosebleeds, but as the issue of gun violence continues to grow, so should the attention that arts institutions are paying this issue.
So where should orchestras and other arts institutions start when it comes to addressing gun violence? There is no single answer, but one option is to look at how western classical repertoire has already engaged guns, and to use this as a springboard for future dialogue and action. Many people may immediately think of the use of cannons in works like Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” or Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory”, but there are certainly more “handheld” examples in the repertoire. Take Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid Suite”, for example. The work’s 4th (of seven) movement is subtitled, “Gun Battle”, where snare drum hits and fast trumpet articulations help audiences imagine a Wild West filled with outlaws who weren’t afraid to pull the trigger.
There are also European works like Carl Maria von Weber’s “Der Freischütz” (The Freeshooter), where characters prove their virility and ability to be good husbands by way of marksmanship. Putting these works, and others like them, in the proverbial holster can surely be seen as a way to engage gun violence in a uniquely classical, non-offensive way, but what if these works could be used to highlight classical music’s participation in the cultural romanticization of guns?
Ignoring the plague of gun violence has proven to be ineffective toward its demise. Failure to openly and directly address classical music’s history with guns could lead to the exact same outcome. This is by no means a suggestion that gun-themed works should take the stage or not be permanently shelved; instead, understanding, unpacking, and applying this historical intersection can be a way to open new dialogue around the subject.
In recent years, classical music’s relationship with guns has displayed itself in more nuanced ways, detailing the ways that guns and gun violence impact individuals and communities. Among these contemporary works being programmed is Joel Thompson’s “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed”, which, in its own unique way, highlights the fact that death by gunshot isn’t always delivered by those deemed as “mentally ill” or “criminal”.
There are also works like “Here, Bullet”, which addresses guns and mental health through music by Kurt Erickson in which he “sought a musical language steeped in expressive dissonance coupled with an angular vocal line to pair with the beauty and horror of the verses.”
Listening to these works, it’s easy to center the larger issues being engaged (race-based police brutality and mental health, respectively). This doesn’t mean, however, that focusing on the role of gun violence in these stories is inappropriate. Just as gun-adjacent repertoire of the past could be reframed through a more modern lens, contemporary works that speak to gun violence could raise awareness among classical music audiences about gun violence.
While there are a plethora of ideas for how orchestras, opera houses, choirs, and chamber music ensembles can address this topic, what’s most important to understand is that something must be done. Yes, a tragic event and the reactionary initiatives that would follow, as laid out in the fictionalized story that at the start of this article, are among the ways in which the classical music industry can take part in the fight against gun violence and gun ownership. But, what if the industry could choose to skip the part that requires death and trauma?
Can arts institutions take what has been largely seen as a political stance and find ways to join the conversation directly? And if so, what are the current barriers for arts institutions to those conversations? As more news headlines, cell phone videos, and first-hand accounts portray these horrific events day by day, it’s clear the nation is not headed in the right direction.
Arts institutions, having been largely separate from these dialogues, are in a unique position and at an urgent crossroads: Will they keep the blinders on and maintain their relative code of silence on guns or will they step forward and show that ending gun violence in the United States is up to all of us? For the sake of concert hall spaces and the people who fill them, let us hope it will be the latter.