in Columns

The Special Feature 3/2023 Editorial: Musical mappings of grief

by Lasse Lehtonen

It may be clichéd to note that music is an exceptionally powerful medium for channeling strong emotions, but this cliché certainly underscores its validity when one encounters a profoundly human emotion: grief. The expression – or experience – of grief through music can follow highly normative and ritualized paths, especially during occasions like funerals. However, it can also take freer forms, seeking to push the boundaries and norms that society typically imposes on how we should experience grief.

The musical mappings of grief, therefore, hold critical significance, yet the fluidity of grief makes the topic inherently intriguing. Do music and grief, for example, intersect in contexts that elude our everyday lives and experiences? If so, how do these intersections manifest in human encounters and the work of musicians and composers? After all, both music and grief are profoundly human phenomena fundamentally rooted in communication – whether it be between individuals, within oneself, or as a situational or atmospheric experience.

The auditory dimension of grief thus offers myriad perspectives for exploration. The present special issue of FMQ approaches these themes from the perspective of music and the finality of existence. In this context, music can assume obvious roles, such as its use in funerals. However, even these seemingly conventional uses can take less obvious forms, as exemplified by the work of Hanna Seppänen, a cantor exclusively focused on performing music at funerals. This specialized occupation places unique demands on the musician while raising fundamental questions about the experience of grief. In such a context, music may not only provide mourners with an appropriate setting for experiencing grief; it can also function as a bridge, mediating between two states of being. For instance, music can assist terminally ill patients and their families in bidding farewell, as demonstrated by the experiences of Finnish music therapist Emma von Weissenberg in hospice care in the United States.

On another note, music in Finland has long been associated with forms of grief that may seem distant from contemporary life but still resonate today. Emmi Kuittinen’s work, drawing on Finnic laments (itku), brings these experiences closer to our modern sensibilities. Similarly, singer-songwriter Astrid Swan has personally confronted grief while battling a terminal illness. Even the premiere of a contemporary music piece can become a shared experience of grief, regardless of whether the music was initially intended to evoke such emotions. This is precisely what transpired during the performance of the HUSH trumpet concerto (2023), which became the late Kaija Saariaho’s swansong – and a premier with almost ritualistic undertones. To conclude this special issue, we include a previously published article where Finnish composers reminisce about Saariaho as both a person and a composer.

In exploring the intricate relationship between music and grief, we find ourselves traversing a realm where emotions and sounds converge, offering a space to encounter grief in its versatility. This space can comprise feelings of solace, understanding, and connection – but it can also amplify the experience by bringing difficult emotions closer to us. It is in these spaces that we can discover something deeply human about the chasm between sorrow and serenity.

Featured picture created with DALL·E 2.