Thankfully, this is the final day of what has been a memorably difficult year. As we eagerly anticipate 2021, we look for symbols of hope, moments that inspire joy to carry us into the future. Not surprisingly, I have found nothing more hopeful, more comforting and inspirational than music and the artists who create that joyful noise. Two totally diverse tales illustrate the truth of this belief, and also provide perspective on this awful year.
Bruce Springsteen produced a new album and accompanying documentary film, Letter To You, during 2020; music from this introspective poet is always a cause for joy, but especially so during a pandemic. Springsteen’s songs were inspired by the fact that he is the last living member of a Jersey Shore band that he had joined as a teen, the Castiles; as expected from Bruce, the music is awesome. He sings his deeply felt lyrics — “I’m the last man standing now,” “One minute you’re here, next minute you’re gone,” “I’ll see you in my dreams, death is not the end” — while the E Street Band demonstrates how a band becomes greater than the sum of its parts, evoking wide-ranging emotions while producing grand, euphoria-inducing music.
Springsteen confronts universal truths in this project, reflecting on the passage of time, the fact that “You get only so many star-filled nights and rainy summer days, only so much music, so its always a good idea to take joy wherever you find it.” Letter to You inspires joy and hope in spite of admitting the reality that surrounds us. This year has demonstrated the fragility of life; Springsteen’s songs contemplate that fragility while magically remaining life-affirming and joyful.
The second story confirming the power of music comes from The New York Times profile of an 88-year-old Belgian man who flung open his window and played music on his piano, filling the surrounding air with jazz notes and bringing joy to his neighbors who were suffering through their first Coronavirus-necessitated lockdown last April and May; this gift to his neighborhood was intended to make people happy. “Music is a means of communication, of connection,” Simon Gronowski explained, saying that he had taught himself to play the piano as a teenager in honor of a sister he adored who perished in Auschwitz in 1943.
Mr. Gronowski’s remarkable life story includes the fact that, when he was just 11 years old and at the urging of his mother, he jumped out of a train speeding to Auschwitz; his mother did not follow him and died at Auschwitz. After hiding in attics for 17 months, the boy was united with his ailing father following the liberation of Brussels in September 1944; however, when his father died the following year, young Simon became an orphan. After spending three years in foster care, the young Belgian moved back into his empty family home, took in lodgers to raise funds for daily expenses and schooling, and earned a Ph.D. in law by age 23; he married and had two daughters, but did not talk much about his past.
Then, in 2002, he wrote his first book, The Child of the 20th Century, recounting his experiences and confronting his guilt at still being alive when others were not. This resulted in newfound fame, leading to lectures sending messages of hope to audiences. “I always tell them one important thing: I tell them that life is beautiful; but it is also a daily struggle,” he says. Mr. Gronowski says that he plays his piano with the windows shut now — “It’s a bit too cold,” he explains. But his gift to his neighbors resonates, lifting spirits during this continuing dark time.
Music can help us surmount disturbing realities, revealing and uplifting lasting truths that comfort and inspire. May our New Year be filled with its comfort and joy.