Sweet or sad? An elusive blend of the two? Melancholy has been inspiring the world of the arts since the beginning of time. A human necessity – as universal as it is mysterious and compelling, it existed long before we so clumsily named it. It lurks within us in a hidden reservoir where black bile bubbles, waiting to consume us. It was not until the very end of 19th century that the existence of black bile was finally disproved.
The feeling of nostalgia, though quite different, is a very close relative of melancholy. The two are so intrinsically interwoven that when mixed together create a potent emotional alloy. Many languages have their own particular way of treating these two terms and have unique and deeply beloved words for it – Brazilian “Saudade”, Bosnian “Sevdah”, Welsh “Hiraeth”, Galician “Morriña”, German “Sehnsucht”, among many others. These words are all essentially expressing the same thing, arguably with their own melancholy-nostalgia ratio. And yet all these nations are extremely proud and possessive of their own melancholy heritage and assert that no one else can truly feel and understand their particular kind of pain, as it is unique to them – melancholy and nostalgia as cultural constructs.
The above quotes from Robert Burton’s masterpiece “The Anatomy of Melancholy” (1621) elegantly represent this fabulous duality – pleasure and pain, magnet and repellent. A contemporary of John Dowland, Burton dedicated his life to researching melancholy. Dowland, on the other hand, dedicated his life to reveling in melancholy, and even marketing it. He infamously signed his letters with “Semper Dowland, semper dolens” (always Dowland, always doleful), and often gave his compositions melancholic titles. His “Forlorn Hope Fancy” is a stunningly beautiful chromatic fantasy built upon a theme comprising a six-note chromatic descent. In the musical rhetoric of the time this could symbolize a sigh, a tear, deepest despair, or even death. It is of no importance whether Dowland’s melancholy was forced or real – through calling for it, he has created one of the absolute masterpieces of the Renaissance. It exploits the most advanced polyphonic techniques of the day for the most profound expressive affect.
From ancient Greece up until the middle ages, melancholy was considered a malady. Although Aristotle did wonder why it afflicted mostly artists and orators. By the Elizabethan time, to be under the influence of black bile was considered a prestigious feature of being an artist. The cult of melancholy emerged and Dowland embraced it enthusiastically, becoming a melancholic “on call”. This tectonic shift from pathology to prestige happened somewhere in between.
If melancholy has national variations, “Choro da Saudade” by Agustin Barrios is a curious example. “Choro” is a Brazilian type of popular music with distinctive rhythm and structure and “saudade” is that mystical emotional fusion of sadness and yearning that apparently only Brazilians can truly feel. Barrios was Paraguayan. He composed the “Choro da Saudade” for a dear Brazilian friend whose son, Américo Piratininga de Camargo, died suddenly. Within these most tragic of circumstances, Barrios was paying the highest respect to his friend and to Brazilian culture composing music of outstanding beauty. Barrios’s elegy soon became one of the most popular pieces in the guitar’s repertoire. Nevertheless it is a “choro” and a “saudade” as imagined and understood by a Paraguayan and performed here by a Croatian – a kind of tourism of melancholy.
“Lament” by Dusan Bogdanovic is quite a different matter. Written after the death of composer’s father, it is very much influenced by Balkan music – its modes, melismas and ornaments, and above all by “sevdah”, the Balkan counterpart to “saudade”. “Lament” is a gorgeous piece of music, wistful yet passionate, that the composer rates among his very best. With both composer and performer being from the Balkans, is this melancholy more authentic?
Some music seems able to awaken a feeling of melancholy without the actual need of any previous life experience – a melancholy of Tabula Rasa. The music of Astor Piazzolla sometimes has that power. Roland Dyens’s very personal and unique arranging style, gave us an exquisite arrangement of Piazzolla’s “Oblivion”. Its rich voicing creating viscose textures that, sprinkled with occasional droplets of jazz, pour onwards from one phrase to the next; lava flowing into its petrified oblivion. Arranging Piazzolla was Roland’s last grand project. Published posthumously in a collection aptly named “The Last Tango” I envision it as Roland’s “signing out”, with a glorious signature and with the bravest of melancholies.
“Tombeau” is a musical genre invented by lutenists in early Baroque as a form of expression of grief and respect towards the passing of a friend or an illustrious colleague. The intimate and sensitive lute seems to be the ideal medium for such a melancholic endeavour. The earliest “tombeau” we know of was composed by French master lutenist Ennemond Gaultier in 1638. Soon it spread throughout the lute world and was inevitably picked up by harpsichordists (Froberger, Couperin). With the demise of lute at the end of the 18th century so went the tombeau, until Ravel brilliantly resurrected it with his “Le Tombeau de Couperin”. Sylvius Leopold Weiss’s “Tombeau” was composed in honour of his colleague, the lutenist Jan Antonin Losy. It is an absolute masterpiece of the genre, beautiful and touching, with long progressions and with unusually insistent repeated notes and chords that intensify the plaintive sadness he must have felt. A melancholy opposed by its optimistic final long ascending chromatic scale.
In 1895 Debussy wrote to a friend returning from Spain: “…but above all bring me back a guitar from which will escape, when wounded, like a fine sound dust, all the barbaric melancholy it once contained.” In 1920 Manuel de Falla brilliantly tamed that loose and wild “barbaric melancholy”, crystalizing it into “Homenaje” before giving back the guitar the power of releasing it again. Rarely has a masterpiece of such a short duration had greater historical significance. (It is even shorter then Cage’s 4’33”).
Asked to join a project of homage to Debussy, envisaged by the prestigious French magazine “la Revue musicale” and involving a number of the most significant composers of the day (Stravinsky, Bartok etc.), Falla boldly chose the guitar as his preferred medium. With this masterstroke he not only paid respect to his close friend and mentor, Debussy (who was innately attracted to guitar and to Spanish music), but also confronted a deeply embedded prejudice against the guitar as being merely a folky, strumming box. Thereby opening the doors to its future as a refined concert instrument. Falla masterfully distilled the raw elements of flamenco’s “Cante Jondo” and instilled them into each note of “Homenaje”, making the “barbaric melancholy” its main driving force.
Sir William Walton described Alan Rawsthorne’s “Elegy for Guitar” as music “of a melancholy, haunting beauty”. Considered one of the most moving compositions of Rawsthorne’s entire output, it was left not quite finished when the composer passed away. Julian Bream, who Elegy was being written for, masterfully completed it by recapitulating the opening section and combining sketches Rawsthorne left in the working score. Elegy is characterized by very clear and austere writing, no need for too many notes. Rather naked lines are moving forward, flirting with serialism here, tonality there, and all spiced up with the intense motive of Shostakovich’s musical initials “D-S-C-H”. Was Rawsthorne sending a message to a composer who inspired him? Elegy is a deeply powerful piece of music with a very strong emotional impact, it is sincere and honest. The piece is not an act of despair, but joy of the final moments of communication with, and through, music.
In the world of film, melancholy and nostalgia have immeasurable significance. They seem to be the integral part of the seventh art. “Cinema Paradiso” by Stephen Goss includes a movement celebrating Charlie Chaplin, the very embodiment of melancholy. Let me use the words by the composer himself to describe this magnificent piece.
‘“Cinema Paradiso” is music about film. Each of the six short movements pays homage to a director or genre.
In “Paris, Texas”, I wanted to evoke the unique atmosphere of Wim Wenders’s 1984 film, exploring the similitude between the vast open spaces of the Texan desert and the internal emptiness of solitude through loss. The music alludes to Ry Cooder’s haunting soundtrack.
The second movement mickey-mouses a scene from Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (1936). Here Chaplin’s character is working on a production line in a factory: the music shifts gear as the camera switches attention from one machine to another. Before long Chaplin can’t keep up with the conveyor belt and ends up being swallowed by a large machine. After racing out of control, the machine grinds to a halt – as it starts up again Chaplin is gently regurgitated and production can continue.
“Noir” is a homage to a whole genre. Crime jazz became the soundtrack of Film Noir from the 1950s onwards – a sleazy, seedy, smoke-filled room music of dark corners. Miles Davis’s score for “Asenseur pour l’échafaud” (1958) and Duke Ellington’s “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959) exemplify the style.
Lars von Trier’s “Dogville” (2003) explores individual and societal decadence by interrogating the fragility of civilisation. Drawing on Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”, the film watches a whole community destroy itself. “Mandalay” distorts the musical style of Kurt Weill through the prism of von Trier’s nihilism. In François Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451” (1966) – set in a dystopian future – reading is banned and all books are burned.
“451” focusses on “the book people”, who live on the fringes of this society learning books by heart and teaching them to one another to keep the books alive. In keeping with this idea from the film, there is no written score for 451. Performers have to be taught the piece by someone else, or learn it from a recording or video – the original score has been burned.
“Tarantino” is a short Tarantella – a dance to the death: not caused by the bite of a spider, but the needle of a heroin overdose. The music alludes to the world of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994) – violent, callous, insolent, breathtaking.’
As a bonus track, I have included my own rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Melancholia”. “The Duke” seems to have been able to invoke a melancholy muse with a snap of his fingers. I transcribed it from his solo piano performance as recorded on the 1953 “The Duke plays Ellington” album. Mellow, pretty, and permeated with sensual melancholy, I did not copy it note for note, but tried to make it, just like the title of another of Ellington’s tunes – “Kinda Dukish”.
The ancient Greeks named it – melas (black), chole (bile) – but is melancholy a hindering pathology, as they would have it, or an inspiring state of mind, as Dowland would suggest? Or is it just continuously oscillating somewhere in between? Is it a pure and solemn state of a human soul? Or does it stem from the simple joy of crying a silent tear in private? Black Bile may not literally flow in our veins, but the idea of its liquid magnetism might help explain the mesmerizing attraction of melancholy.
01 – A.PIAZZOLLA
OBLIVION (ARR. ROLAND DYENS)
02 – J. DOWLAND
FORLORN HOPE FANCY
03 – D. BOGDANOVIC
04 – S.L.WEISS
TOMBEAU SUR LA MORT DE M. COMTE DE LOGY
05 – M. DE FALLA
HOMENAJE A DEBUSSY
06 – A. BARRIOS
CHORO DA SAUDADE
07 – A. RAWSTHORNE
STEPHEN GOSS – CINEMA PARADISO
08 – PARIS, TEXAS
09 – MODERN TIMES
10 – NOIR
11 – MANDALAY
12 – 451
13 – TARANTINO
14 – D. ELLINGTON