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Remembering September 11 Through Music

Last weekend, I celebrated the 95th birthday of a very dear British friend, Brenda, who lives in Finland, and like me, is a classically-trained pianist. Although her short-term memory only now seems to be fading a little, Brenda had no trouble recalling long-ago events. One that was utmost in her memory was her 12th birthday, the day England entered World War II. In detail, she described how she and her family were awoken by bomb attacks that shook their two-story home, shattered the windows, and caused the lid of her upright piano to fly open. Her father then nailed it shut.

Traumatic and destructive events such as these can leave indelible marks on our minds and haunt us for years, even if we did not witness them up close. Today, September 11, 2022, I am still thinking about this day twenty-one years ago—a balmy Tuesday that had started off with so much joy.

I was living in Budapest and had planned to spend the entire day at the Franz Liszt International Piano Competition at the Music Academy. A huge Liszt fan, that morning I reveled in the rousing performances of the composer’s Hungarian Rhapsodies and swooned over the exquisite Un Sospiro in the Academy’s Great Hall. However, my blissed-out state was about to implode.

During Intermission, I turned on my phone and saw that my Hungarian friend Heléna had left multiple messages. Above the noise of other concertgoers swirling around me, I thought I heard the words “tower” and “plane” in her quivering voice. Concerned, I slipped outside and called Heléna back. When she said, “Twin Towers are burning,” I didn’t understand and assumed another language glitch. Only when she urged me to leave at once and watch CNN at her home, did I sense something sinister. Needless to say, I missed the rest of the competition.

For the next two weeks, I hibernated at home, watching the same disturbing images of aircraft crashing into the World Trade Center’s North and South Towers, the buildings buckling in flames, and smoke engulfing first responders. Worried about her unanswered phone calls, Heléna appeared at my doorstep with two tickets to the piano competition’s Gala Concert. Although the event had continued, I’d lost interest. Heléna managed to lure me back to the Great Hall by telling me that my favorite, Canadian pianist Li Wang, was a finalist.

During the Gala Concert, we heard a young Hungarian prodigy, Péter Tóth, perform Liszt’s Totentanz, or “Dance of Death.” As soon as his fingers jumped onto the ivories with a massive thud, and the brass players entered with the ominous theme, I closed my eyes and imagined the terrifying events that had unfolded at Ground Zero that wretched day:

Somewhere in the clear blue sky, a plane veers out of control. The thunder of restless chords culminates in an explosive cymbal crash—the North Tower has been struck!

Péter rips the tumultuous melody from the other musicians, his fingers scampering up and down the ivories and dislodging shards of glass, which fly through the fiery sky. A succession of rapid notes and trills follow: thousands of innocent panicky hearts thump in unison against a crescendo of havoc. Shock waves creep up and down the Tower, causing it to buckle. Bodies, like meteors, litter the hellish skies.

Then, stone silence. Slowly the melody crawls in, meanders, seeks rest; the tempo skids down. Two bassoonists weave a duet against the plucking of anxious strings. A trumpet cries out in agony. Péter’s left hand pounds out the macabre theme, his right is lost in glissandi created by sliding his thumbs and the back of his hand up and down the ivories. He then pounces onto the piano, like a lion protecting its young as the brass fight back, defiant.

During the prayer-like variation, angels descend; their feathers fall, along with ashes, chunks of metal, and wiring into the Abyss. While a peaceful lullaby fills the skies, they carry the dying up to the Everafter on their wings. Only the wailing of a lone clarinet reminds the victims of the earthly suffering they’ve left behind.

Suddenly, from out of the ash heap, the Devil rears up, the snare of his voice piercing the reverie. Willowy flutes fight to keep the peace, but Satan stokes the bonfire’s flames.

Distant footsteps approach and then race up the stairwells. Can help be on the way? Firemen yank hoses and sirens blast, emergency vehicles screech through the soot-covered city streets. Expressions of hope dominate, but the French horns hurl fireballs; the violins struggle to douse the flames. Finally, the cymbal’s earth-shattering boom rattles the room. A second plane crashes into the South Tower!

While the Orchestra catches its breath, Péter attacks the cadenza. His right hand leaps up and down the upper registers, desperately looking for an escape, but is overcome by his left hand hammering the keys in the lower one. The conductor guides the musicians as they seep back in with the triumphant brass section blaring out the shifting theme.

The piano and flute weave a tender duet, recalling the innocence of first love; a triangle bestows a blessing. Using broad bow strokes, the violins sneer at such a show of affection. The diabolical theme pulsates in the piano, foreshadowing the Devil’s return.

The Devil is back, staggering between the two teetering Towers. Péter whips the keys, begging for mercy, but this final attempt is pushed back by the full weight of the Orchestra. Together, they all spiral down into the Abyss, the last gasp of chords striking nails into the coffin of Humanity.

Years later, while writing Odyssey of Love: A Memoir of Seeking and Finding, I included these thoughts and visions conjured up by hearing Totentanz that night. Twenty-one years later, they are still vivid in my memory.

Thank you for reading.

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