Melancholy is as old a sentiment as it is hard to define. Yet it has always been a defining characteristic of some music. What culture has not its melancholy songs? And why are some—like Irish folk music—able to juxtapose cheer and sadness so closely? Whatever is the case, men and women in moments of melancholy always have a strong urge to turn to music that matches their mood.
In our own day, unhealthy melancholy and depression arising from the ills of modernity clutch more and more people. As before, we are inclined to turn to melancholy music, looking for catharsis, for cleansing and refreshment.
But if most modern melancholy and depressive music arises from the same dark sources that inspire such moods, can they really cure them? Can depression resulting from anger and lust and fear of nonexistence be cleansed by the pulsing beat of despairing, crude, or violent rock or rap songs?
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I would suggest mending our melancholy moods with the melancholy of other, more musically-healthy times—and to that end, I propose five songs of melancholy from the Renaissance and Baroque periods:
- John Dowland, Lachrimae or the Seven Tears. This amazing cycle of seven pieces by the king of Renaissance lutenists are variations on a theme of four descending notes—the “falling tear” motif. The harmonies are intense, with closely woven lines and aching dissonances. The seven variations are named after different types of tears: “Old Tears,” “Old Tears Renewed,” “Sighing Tears,” “Sad Tears,” “Forced Tears,” “A Lover’s Tears,” and, finally, “True Tears.”
- Alonso Lobo, Versa Est in Luctum. A Spanish cleric and composer, Lobo here sets a text from the Requiem office for six voices. Its translation is: “My harp is turned to grieving and my flute to the voice of those who weep. Spare me, O Lord, for my days are as nothing.” The soaring polyphony creates waves of sound like an avalanche in slow motion; pure, white, powerful, cleansing.
- Tomás Luis de Victoria, Taedet Anima Mea. Another text from the Requiem office, this motet by the priest-composer Victoria takes the words of Job, beginning: “My soul is weary of my life; I will leave my complaint upon myself; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.” But like the ultimate attitude of Job, the music promotes surrender in peace to the inscrutable will of God.
- Domenico Mazzocchi, Lagrime Amare. An Italian text imagining the prayer of St. Mary Magdalene, these lilting “tears of love” are here performed with exquisite artistry by Nicolas Achten’s ensemble Scherzi Musicali. The lyric cornetto horn overlaying the plucked and bowed instruments introduces the melody before the soprano begins to sing of the “languishing soul.”
- J.C. Bach, Lamento: Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte. Setting a text from the Psalms and Lamentations of Jeremiah, J.C. Bach, the son of the famous J.S. Bach, pours all the emotion a baroque ensemble can conjure up into this cry from the depths. Sinuous, aching violin motifs surge over the murky strings, the blackness of night punctuated in the plucking of the lute before the countertenor solo pierces the heart in a wail of spiritual desolation.
Shakespeare references music many times in his plays. In As You Like It, the bard calls the musician’s melancholy “fantastical,” while Cleopatra, in Antony and Cleopatra, calls music the “moody food of us that trade in love.” Most of the five pieces which I have listed above were composed in the lifetime of Shakespeare, and Dowland was his fellow Englishman.
If we agree with Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice that “the man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treason, stratagems, and spoils,” then we should also be careful what music we are moved by.
If we crave melancholy music to soothe our sadness, let us not turn to the animalistic depression of contemporary genres. Instead, let us allow our souls to be soothed with ancient beauty which is ever new.
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles explaining great works of music “in a nutshell.”