The Power of Music

Kevin Puts is a Pulitzer winning composer-in-residence at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, as well as a composition professor at the Peabody Institute of Music. Puts has written numerous pieces, all with the same idea in mind, the idea of using music to narrate a story to the audience. This storytelling trait was especially notable in his first opera, Silent Night, a compelling work centered around the Christmas of 1914 and the temporary truce between Scottish, French, and German soldiers.[1] Puts composed several other pieces in a similar manner, such as Symphony No. 2 and The City. These pieces not only tell a story, but reflect on real life, impactful events that have shaken people to their core. Music can have an enormous power and Puts utilizes that power to break politically established boundaries, create comfort for his audience, as well as to pour his own deepest thoughts and emotions in his music.

Silent Night’s storyline is one that remains relevant today. It is a story about unification under the least expected circumstances: in the midst of a war. Today, a different war, one of ideas, is being waged in the United States, as there is “no question we live in divisive times”.[2] If we took a cue from Silent Night and put our opinions aside to all come together, then we could see that every “soldier” in today’s war has fundamental similarities: family, loved ones, and a desire to live a peaceful and fulfilling life. Therefore, it’s clear how this opera’s relevancy extends beyond its time and into the world we currently live in. Librettist, Mark Campbell, claims “that war is not sustainable once you know your enemy as another human being. If you know that that person you are going to shoot has a daughter or a wife at home, the war machine will not work.”[3] Drawing on that notion, Puts used this foundation as a means to create a timeless piece that serves as proof that all human beings are fundamentally the same and should be treated equally.

Puts composes not only for the purpose of creating important messages of equality and humanization, but also in order to express his own pain and emotions caused by real life events. This is seen through his “Symphony No. 2” composed shortly after the September 11th attacks. Composing a symphony was the best way for him to express his pain, as through symphony “we get a sense of the journey, where we’ve been, how far we’ve come.”.[4] Therefore, after the horrendous events of 9/11, he felt the need to provide the audience and “comfort”[5] through his music. “Symphony No. 2” was Puts’ way of coping with the event that shocked the nation. A similar occurrence happened when he was commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to compose a piece about Baltimore, which he aptly named The City. What was initially supposed to be a multi-media work to serve as a “tour guide”[6] of Baltimore, quickly turned into something completely different following the death of Freddie Gray and the turmoil in the city that resulted. Puts thus composed a piece that does not ignore these events, but instead provides “a potential of healing and of mutual understanding”[7], a composition to help unite the city and foster peace.

Kevin Puts is only one of many composers who has expressed politics, nationalism and personal life experiences through music. The most notable may be Dmitri Shostakovich who suffered under the oppression of the Soviet Regime. It is often said that “his music, more than most, has to be contextualized in terms of the harrowing narrative of his life.”[8] Another repressed composer, Olivier Messiaen, wrote his Quartet for the End of Time when he was a prisoner of a war camp in Germany. Even Beethoven put his own political attitudes into his music when he removed the initial dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte in his Symphony No. 3. What all of these composers have in common is that they interwove their attitudes and feelings into their music to create compelling, relevant pieces the audience can relate to. In this we see the beauty and the power that music has. Music provides a statement without words that everyone can understand. The genius of Puts is seen through exactly this- the uncompromising, honest voice he provides in his compositions.

By Ivana Biliskov

Bibliography

Harris, Kyle. “Composer Kevin Puts on 9/11, the “Tragedy” of Trump, and Beethoven Envy.” Interview by Kyle Harris. Westword, November 08, 2017. Accessed March 04, 2019. https://www.westword.com/music/composer-kevin-puts-on-9-11-the-tragedy-of-trump-and-beethoven-envy-8736810.

Huizenga, Tom. “Hear The Opera That Just Won The Pulitzer.” NPR. April 23, 2012. Accessed March 04, 2019.

https://www.npr.org/2012/04/23/151211677/hear-the-opera-that-just-won-the-pulitzer.

Mooney, Tom. “”Silent Night” at Wexford: How Opera Woke Up to the Great War.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 104, no. 414 (2015): 185-93. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/24347762.

Puts, Kevin. “A Pulitzer Winner Asks: Why Write Symphonies?” NPR. August 05, 2013. Accessed March 04, 2019. https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2013/08/05/208280751/a-pulitzer-winner-asks-why-write-symphonies.

Puts, Kevin. “Kevin Puts talks about “The City”.” YouTube video, 4:54. April 22, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfaUfHYnssY

Rabinowitz, Peter J. “The Rhetoric of Reference; Or, Shostakovich’s Ghost Quartet.” Narrative 15, no. 2 (2007): 239-56. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/30219253.

Tischler, Gary. “Kevin Puts on His Pulitzer-Winning Opera: ‘Silent Night’.” The Georgetowner. November 10, 2018. Accessed March 04, 2019. https://georgetowner.com/articles/2018/11/08/kevin-puts-pulitzer-winning-opera-silent-night/.


[1] Tom Huizenga, “Hear The Opera That Just Won The Pulitzer,” NPR, April 23, 2012, Accessed March 04, 2019,

https://www.npr.org/2012/04/23/151211677/hear-the-opera-that-just-won-the-pulitzer.

[2] Gary Tischler, “Kevin Puts on His Pulitzer-Winning Opera: ‘Silent Night’,” The Georgetowner, November 10, 2018, Accessed March 04, 2019, https://georgetowner.com/articles/2018/11/08/kevin-puts-pulitzer-winning-opera-silent-night/.

[3] Tom Mooney, “”Silent Night” at Wexford: How Opera Woke Up to the Great War,” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 104, no. 414 (2015): 192, http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/24347762.

[4] Kevin Puts, “A Pulitzer Winner Asks: Why Write Symphonies?,” NPR, August 05, 2013, Accessed March 04, 2019, https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2013/08/05/208280751/a-pulitzer-winner-asks-why-write-symphonies.

[5] Kyle Harris, “Composer Kevin Puts on 9/11, the “Tragedy” of Trump, and Beethoven Envy,” Interview by Kyle Harris, Westword, November 08, 2017, Accessed March 04, 2019, https://www.westword.com/music/composer-kevin-puts-on-9-11-the-tragedy-of-trump-and-beethoven-envy-8736810.

[6] Kevin Puts, “Kevin Puts talks about “The City”,” YouTube video, 4:54, April 22, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfaUfHYnssY.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Peter J. Rabinowitz, “The Rhetoric of Reference; Or, Shostakovich’s Ghost Quartet,” Narrative 15, no. 2 (2007): 241, http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/30219253.

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