What did people do before the invention of motion pictures to visualize the devastations wrought by natural disasters? From God’s fury on earth manifested in hurricanes and fires to the final cataclysm of the Last Judgment, musicians were long charged with conjuring vivid of tableaux of death and destruction. Nowadays we often witness on television catastrophic events unfolding in real time. Before the advent of instantaneous mass media, newspapers could describe events and disseminate information soon after the fact, but the job of evoking visceral reactions to earthquakes, typhoons, and tidal waves was left to the preacher and the composer.
During his Italian sojourn Handel commemorated the Roman earthquakes of 1703 in his Marian cantatas, spurring terror, awe, and sympathy with his gifts for depicting the unpredictable natural world in musical sound; a half century later, Handel would later portray another earthquake at the outset of his most famous work, Messiah. The Donnerode (Thunder Ode) by Handel’s friend, Telemann, responded to the greatest natural disaster of the eighteenth century, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Telemann’s musical mission was not only to give the listeners a charge of fright through timpani rumblings and terrifying violin bolts presaging the apocalypse, but also to loosen the pocketbooks so as to aid the Portuguese victims of the disaster. Some of the music was meant to elicit compassion, but the more effective money-raiser was terror, as in the duet of male voices trembling furiously amidst the shrieks of the organ and orchestra. Such frightening passages had people screening the distant devastation in their own minds, scenes even more frightening as they feared that God’s wrath might be turned against them and their own sins.
As Handel, Telemann and other pictorially talented composer’s demonstrated, music could conjure scenes of disaster, especially when there was a separate program or explicit relation to a recent disaster. Musical works, even when equipped with a text, were by definition indefinite, a trait that could prove to be an advantage when evoking distant catastrophes. Music has an unmatched capacity for sparking that most unsettling of human faculties: the imagination.
The terrifying televised scenes of Typhoon Haiyun laying waste to the Philippines blinker the mind’s eye: we believe that the image does not lie. However horrifying are the events seen on our screens — be they as big as the side of a barn or as small as a postage stamp — there is an objective, containable quality to them. As seen on news reports these images are without a soundtrack that would lend to them the fictional quality of the kind of disaster blockbuster Hollywood has for so long been adept at churning out.
It must be largely thanks to the primacy and prevalence of moving images of disasters that the idea of depicting these events in sound (even if for the purposes of raising money) is now looked on with disapproval; musically aestheticizing suffering is thought an artistic crime, even if we gladly watch dramatizations of disaster in movies buttressed whose effect is amplified by musical accompaniment.
Before the advent of movies, scenic disaster music was a crucial part of coming to terms with disasters, as the Telemann and Handel examples suggest. Even the church the organ was enlisted in the service of depicting of natural catastrophes. Across the nineteenth the King of Instruments, especially in France, was fitted with thunder stops that sounded a cluster of deep rumbling pipes meant to set the scene for musical spectacles of devastation. Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, the nineteenth-century master builder who made many of the large and famous organs still in use in Paris’s large churches, equipped his instruments with these or, in his beautifully preserved 100-stop masterpiece in St. Sulpice, a hailstorm stop (Machine à Grêle).
These registers were used for storm symphonies that organists loved to improvise, none more famously or virtuosically than Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély, who became the first titular organist at St. Sulpice after the organ’s completion, serving there until his death in 1869 at the age of 52. Having improvised his first storm at the organ when he was just ten years old, Lefébure-Wély was a prodigy of disaster music at the organ.
He was also the most important early promoters of Cavaillé-Coll’s organs one of which was finished in 1845 for the magnificent church of La Madeleine in Paris, where Lefébure-Wely served as organist before later taking up his post at St Sulpice. Soon after he inaugurated the instrument there was a terrible flood in the Loire Valley.
In the British press it was reported that the Loire at Roanne “carried away on the night of the 18th October  forty yards of the embankment, with a noise similar to that of a cannon fired amongst mountains.” The water rushed into the town, reaching “to the fifth storey of the houses.” Aside from the destruction of houses and municipal buildings, “270 boats were sunk; 33,000 pieces of wine and 3,000 hogsheads of spirits of wine,valued at a sum of 2,000,000 francs, have been lost.” An emergency fleet that included newly introduced steamers rescued survivors stranded on rooftops. No exact figures were assembled on the large number of dead. In the vast lake formed by the Loire after it burst its bank could be “seen floating timber, trees, and cattle; and cries of distress were heard at every point.”
A benefit for the flood victims was organized for the magnificent new instrument in the church of La Madeleine with the most famous organist of the period, Lefébure-Wely as the main musical attraction. The contemporary account relates that the organist’s final piece was an improvisation: “the great musician took as his inspiration from the various episodes of the disaster, and depicted them in music. The river overflowed its banks; the rampaging waters roared onward, spreading death and destruction everywhere. The victims could be heard moaning and shouting in desperation. Suddenly the organist halted his improvisation and intoned a faraway De profundis on the Voix humaine [a soft, and plaintive reed stop]. A deathly shudder ran through the audience, and their tear-filled eyes bore witness to both the triumph of a distinguished artist and the infinite resources of his instrument.”
By the late nineteenth century Lefébure-Wely’s reputation and the approach to scenic music-making he represented was scorned by virtually all “serious” players and critics. Reading reports of his 1845 flood benefit concert, it is easy to laugh at the emotional force carried by music that would later be dismissed as pandering and decadent. Lefébure-Wely storms and floods would be expelled from the church and find their home in silent film accompaniments. That the organist’s audiences were moved to tears by his sonic evocations of catastrophe is taken as yet more proof that Lefébure-Wely served up kitsch. To mount a scenic symphony of disaster at a benefit organ concert for Hurricane Katrina or Typhoon Haiyun would be considered vulgar, inappropriate, opportunistic. Some may be happy to have this style banished to the movie soundtrack. But is it not worth at least considering the possibility that to try and paint such devastations musically is one way to come to terms with disaster? If art can never contain nature at least it can taunt her, strip her momentarily of her deathly powers while reveling in her fury.