On October 10, the premiere of Dedicated to 2020 – A Symphony for Soprano, Baritone, Chorus and Orchestra , performed by nearly 200 singers and musicians on a packed stage in Beijing, brought many in the audience to tears. With its solemn and powerful melodies and lyrics, this is the world’s first large-scale Covid-19-inspired symphony, and has drawn comparisons to some of the most stirring pieces of music written at other times of crisis in modern history. The 70-minute-long piece, commissioned by the 23rd Beijing Music Festival, was co-written by Zou Ye, a composer in Wuhan, the city in central China where the Sars-CoV2 virus was first detected. Zou, co-composer Fang Shi and librettist Tang Yuesheng – both Wuhan-born – took inspiration from the people of Wuhan for the choral symphony in eight movements. Zou cites as an example the seventh movement, “Sunset”, which is inspired by the image of an elderly Covid-19 elderly patient – a former Wuhan Philharmonic Orchestra violinist – watching the sunset from his hospital bed. Tang says the piece considers universal themes. “The pandemic give us a chance to rethink humanity. Have we strayed too far from civilised behaviour? Is it high time that we returned to being civilised and loving each other?” he says. Given travel restrictions and social distancing rules, the process of writing the work became an experiment in online collaboration. “The three of us are located in different places (Wuhan, Beijing and Shenzhen). So our feelings (about the virus outbreak) are different. We kept up our communications online and sent snippets to each other through email. The final piece took shape step by step in this way. We didn’t see each other until [the start of rehearsals] on October 8,” Zou says. On October 10, the night of the premiere at the Beijing Poly Theatre, Zou conducted the performance by the Wuhan Philharmonic Orchestra, Beijing Symphony Orchestra, Wuhan-born musicians of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, Wuhan singers Zhang Liping and He Leiming, the Wuhan Conservatory of Music Choir and the Beijing Music Association Chorus. Wuhan Philharmonic Orchestra director Zhang Shouzhong says it’s the first substantial orchestral work in the world inspired by the pandemic. “During the pandemic outbreak, (the people of Wuhan) felt the concern and care from people from all around China. We wanted to repay such kindness by coming to Beijing to perform this work specifically made for the pandemic,” Zhang Shouzhong said. Soprano Zhang Liping says that, as a Wuhan native, she was moved to tears by the lyrics. “Every time I sing it, I can’t bear to think about the meaning, the events and the people behind the lyrics. The thought of them will make me well up. It’s beyond my control,” she says. “Wuhan is a heroic city. I want to pay respects to the lives lost during the Wuhan pandemic.” We kept up our communications online and sent snippets to each other through email. The final piece took shape step by step in this way. We didn’t see each other until [the start of rehearsals] on October 8 Zou Ye, co-composer of Dedicated to 2020 Conductor Yu Long, chairman of the Beijing Music Festival Artistic Committee, likens the piece to earlier symphonies that were written to unite the masses against a common enemy, such as Dmitri Shostakovich‘s Symphony No. 7, also called The Leningrad, that was mostly written in Leningrad during the siege by German forces of the city in the second world war. Jeffrey Levenberg, assistant professor of music at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says a symphony can rally people during adverse times to both good and bad causes. In China, he says, “red” classical compositions written in the Western musical tradition have been commissioned at important junctures since the Communist revolution of 1949. “The Yellow River Cantata is another classic example,” he says. These pieces are not just a reflection socialist principles but also Confucian philosophy, he says. “Music is one means of governing the rank and file. A symphony orchestra is massive and has the oomph to make a grand impression on the people.” John Winzenburg, professor of music at Hong Kong Baptist University, who has done research on contemporary Chinese orchestral and choral music, says compositions for chorus and orchestra are very potent social and political works that are symbolically important as memorials. “It is common practice in many places around the world for people to turn to music for rallying purposes … In Hong Kong, Symphony 1997 by Tan Dun was used for one of the handover ceremonies, which I believe was intended to represent a long-term overcoming of national adversity according to the official narrative. “The percussion concerto Cang Cai by Central Conservatory of Music Professor Tang Jianping [was written] to commemorate the Sars experience in 2003.” The severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic of 2002-03, which began in southern China, infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774. New US museum shows Chinese-Americans’ role in building America Winzenburg says: “Especially when many people could participate in group singing, it helped to mobilise people into action. “(There is) symbolic power and strength represented in the large orchestra of strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion …(it) symbolises the different aspects of life and society in monumental proportions: brass and percussion add martial elements that represent the “fighting” spirit of perseverance in the face of adversity; the strings and woodwinds imitate the human voice, but without words and in other-worldly colour; and the chorus and soloists represent the human individual and society working in both struggle and unity. “When all these elements come together on the concert stage, it can provide larger-than-life inspiration.” He says he watched Dedicated to 2020 online and thought it has strong parallels with aspects of the Yellow River Cantata. “The Yellow River Cantata was one of China’s first efforts to adopt a large-scale Western cantata form for political purposes. Certainly the Covid-19 pandemic qualifies as an event of big adversity on par with other major modern historical events. It therefore commands … large-scale artistic works [such as] Dedicated to 2020 ,” he says.