The current COVID-19 crisis has been compared to the “Black Plague”, which ravaged much of Eurasia in the middle of the 14th century C.E. Historians and scientists now believe the scourge first appeared in Western Asia in the 1330s, before storming into India and the Middle East via the legendary “Silk Road” and then into Europe and Northern Africa. It even reached the Danish outpost of Iceland. It’s a wonder, I believe, it didn’t make it to North America, as Viking explorers had already reached what is now Newfoundland. Europe was the hardest hit region, with some 50 million estimated fatalities. Overall, it killed roughly 350- 375 million people. But, since they had no accurate population counting system at the time, the death rate very well could have been several times worst.
There are some chilling similarities to the COVID-19 debacle. It began in Asia and seems to have struck Italy first. Back then religious leaders convinced their ignorant, illiterate followers that the pestilence was God’s condemnation for whatever sins they’d committed. On top of that, national commanders initially didn’t realize the severity of the pandemic and concocted whatever excuses sounded plausible.
Politics aside, one other element remains relatively unchanged: the love of music and dance. We’ve seen people across the globe cope with isolation and mandatory quarantines by singing and dancing; playing music on their doorsteps or balconies for neighbors to hear; connecting with family and friends through cyberspace to share melodies. Again, there are similarities with the “Black Plague”.
Medieval Europeans also often used music and song to celebrate life’s various events. I find music from this time and place beautifully intriguing and even somewhat familiar to current musical trends. As usual, Italians always rose to the occasion; creating a number of songs and dances to express the beauty of life. The saltarello is a perfect example. An Italian dance style dating to the 14th century, it involved leaping and skipping and was performed to music done in a triple meter tempo; usually accompanied by tambourines, guitars, and singing. Saltarello survived into the 18th century and, by then, had become a popular folk dance. Saltarello rhythm and energy bears similarities to tarantella; another popular Italian folk dance also often performed at weddings and dating to medieval times. A well-known contemporary model appears in the final movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ symphony.
Featured performance: Arte Factum
Image: SCALA/Art Resource, New York