Music in Time of Pestilence, Part Two

The following is a guest post by Music Specialist Robert Lipartito. 

The third worldwide cholera pandemic reached America in the late 1840s. As the disease spread, following commerce from New Orleans up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Stephen Foster set a poem by the Irish poet Denis F. MacCarthy to music in 1849. Although Foster was already well known as a writer of minstrel music, “Summer Longings” was one of the earliest of his sentimental parlor songs.

Ah! my heart is weary waiting,
Waiting for the May.
Waiting for the pleasant rambles,
Where the fragrant hawthorn brambles,
With the woodbine alternating,
Scent the dewy way.
Ah! my heart is weary waiting,
Waiting for the May.

Ken Emerson, in his book Doo-dah!: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture writes: “In successive verses the poet’s heart was ‘sick with longing,’ ‘sore with sighing’ and ‘pained with throbbing’ as the arrival of spring and summer seemed interminably delayed.” In the final verse, May arrives and passes, yet the summer brings no relief.

Waiting sad, dejected, weary,
Waiting for the May.
Spring goes by with wasted warnings
Moonlight evening, sunbright mornings
Summer comes, yet dark and dreary
Life still ebbs away
Man is ever weary weary
Waiting for the May.

Summer Longings by Stephen Foster

Stephen Foster. “Summer Longings,” Baltimore: W.C. Peters, 1849. Music Division, M3.3 F7 S82 1849 Case and Microfilm M 3106.

Emerson continues: “It becomes clear, in an ironic (if maudlin) turn, that man is always weary, always waiting, always suspended, no matter what the season of the year, in ‘this betwixt and betweenity.’”[1]

Foster’s song is a sobering, fatalistic response to a grim time when cholera claimed tens of thousands of lives from the Mississippi delta through St. Louis and Cincinnati before spreading westward along the Oregon Trail and other routes.

An earlier cholera outbreak had erupted across Europe from 1826 through 1837.  Berlin was struck by the disease in mid-1831 shortly after the 25-year-old composer/pianist Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel had begun writing a series of three choral cantatas for the Sunday musicales she hosted in that city. Hensel is best known for her piano pieces, lieder, and chamber works, but these choral works represent the major portion of her larger-scaled compositions. Following Lobgesang (Song of Praise) and Hiob (Job), the third cantata was written in commemoration of Berlin’s relief from its bout with the dreaded malady.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

Portrait of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation collection, Music Division. 



Following the initial private performance, the work remained unpublished and likely unperformed until the late 20th century. The composer’s untitled manuscript was discovered in the Mendelssohn Archive of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin in 1982. It was recorded under the title Oratorio auf Worte aus der Bibel (Oratorio on Words from the Bible) and subsequently published as Oratorium nach Bildern der Bibel (Oratorio on Scenes from the Bible). A set of parts bearing the title Cantate nach Aufhören der Cholera (Cantata after the Cessation of Cholera) was discovered in 1996, linking the work to a reference to the Choleramusik found in Hensel’s writings.

The 13-movement work, scored for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists, 8-part choir, and orchestra, pushes the cantata form in the direction of oratorio five years before her brother Felix Mendelssohn’s first work in that form, Paulus. The libretto of Choleramusik, which draws on a variety of biblical texts, forms a span ranging from cries of misery and despair (Wehe weh es ist geschen, [Woe, Woe, It Happened]), through mourning (Sie sind dahin gagangen, [They Have Passed On]), culminating in the final chorus of thanksgiving, praise, and celebration drawn from excerpts of Psalms 68, 47, 150 (Singet Gott, lobsingen dem Herrn, [Sing to God, Praise the Lord]). This emotional journey represents a distinct contrast with the pleas for forgiveness that were typical of the sacred music from the Great Plague discussed in Part One of this survey previously posted in this blog.

It is surprising that there seems to be so little music written during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic that directly addresses that crisis. Perhaps composers were too preoccupied with the First World War to concentrate on the pandemic even though an estimated one third of the world’s population became infected. Many influenza songs that are to be found seem strangely blithe, often taking the form of light rags, blues, and novelty songs.

There are at least three “Influenza Blues” published during this time: “The Influenza Blues: A Syncopated One-Step” by Walter A. Moloney, “The I-N-F-L-U-E-N-Z-A Blues” by Happy Klark and Arthur C. Brown, and “The Influenza Blues” by Robert B. Smith and Malvin M. Franklin from the musical A Lonely Romeo (incidentally the first Broadway show to feature a song by Rodgers & Hart—“Any Old Place with You). Other songs registered for copyright during the influenza pandemic years seem no more serious. An example is “Oh You Flu,” the sole published musical composition by Helen Lyle Pettigrew, a teacher better known as a word puzzle maker than as a songwriter. She has been cited as “probably the first Arkansas native to author a syndicated crossword puzzle.”[2]

Oh You Flu by Helen Pettigrew

Helen Pettigrew. Chorus of “Oh You Flu.” Chicago, Delmar Music Co., 1919. Music Division.

The Music Division’s holdings of World War I songs include over a dozen alluding to influenza, but only as a pun on the word “germ” referring to either Germany or Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Sheet music cover for Knock the Germ Out of Germany

William Auston Miller. “Knock the Germ Out of Germany.” St. Louis: Wm. A Miller, 1918. Music Division, M1646 .M.

Without the overshadowing calamity of a world war, some songs that treat the flu with a greater level of gravity began to appear following less widespread outbreaks in 1928-1929 and 1936-1937. One of these, the ballad “Influenza,” sung here by Ace Johnson and collected by John and Ruby Lomax in 1939, is specifically about the 1929 outbreak.

Sheet music cover for Oh God Hear Their Cry

J.P. Webster. “Oh God, hear their cry!.” Cleveland: S. Brainard’s Sons,1878, Music Division, Music Copyright Deposits, 1870-1885 (Microfilm M3500).

Other examples of musical responses to disease may be found from generation to generation from songs written about yellow fever victims (see illustration on left) to polio (Neil Young’s “Helpless”) to HIV/AIDS (John Corigliano’s  Symphony no. 1 and musicals such as Jonathan Larson’s Rent and Williams Finn’s Falsettoland).

It remains to be seen what the nature and full extent of the music world’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic will be. People have always found a way to use music to articulate their fears, regrets, and hopes in the face of affliction and sorrow.

In conclusion, I would like to return to Stephen Foster for his 1854 song “Hard Times Come Again No More.” It was written during a time of economic upheaval, unemployment, and a resurgence of cholera that caused 400 deaths in a two-week period in Foster’s hometown of Pittsburgh–hard times indeed. The song experienced a revival well over a century later as performers such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Mavis Staples, Johnny Cash, Mary J. Blige, James Taylor, Kate and Anna McGariggle, the Chieftains, and many more took up Foster’s song as an anthem of defiance in the face of social, economic, and natural adversity. The recording offered here is a 1919 performance by Louise Homer and Criterion Quartet.

In contrast to the fatalistic despair of “Summer Longings,” this song, while appealing for concern for the unfortunate (“While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay, There are frail forms fainting at the door.”), also displays more than a touch of tenacious  endurance.

Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
Oh! Hard times come again no more.


[1] Emerson, Ken. Doo-Dah!: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997) 142-143.

[2] Gross, Todd. “Helen Lyle Pettigrew.” CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas. (accessed July 22, 2020).

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