Such sweet sorrow

Lent is an ideal time to take pleasure in a gentle, contemplative and very English strand of musical melancholia

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Now that nothing is much fun any more, what better moment for a proper revival of the “English malady”? No, not sodomy, flagellation, or any of those traditional pastimes, I mean the inclination to melancholy which for centuries was the thing that foreigners most noticed about us.

The past couple of years should have been perfect for a rebirth of this rather attractive, contemplative, withdrawn, studious and grave state, but naturally everyone squandered the chance, steadfastly persevering with the kind of vain, exhibitionist hysterics that now exemplify the national character, shown by everyone from politicians, royals, clerics, to the clowns of telly and media and the millions of soc-med morons clamouring to outdo them in displays of ignorance, crassness and vulgarity.

The middle of Lent seems a good moment to explore this: a time to examine our consciences, question our motivations, ponder how to be true to our true selves. Interestingly, this English melancholia was an alien import that gripped the country quite suddenly at the end of the sixteenth century, in the heyday of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

Before that, the English were seen (much as now) as semi-human drunken boors, strong in t’arm and thick in t’head, incapable of even rudimentary civilised behaviour, usually engaged in outrages against pleasant continental towns — a habit that happily continues, whenever permitted.

Depression and its cousins weren’t much esteemed in this society of bantzy troggoes. The physician Timothy Bright’s Treatise on Melancholie of 1586 presented it as a straightforward mental sickness, a disorder. But by the end of the century melancholy was absolutely the thing: look at all those Elizabethan portraits of moody young chaps staring at their feet or into the middle distance, mulling the futility of it all (and no doubt their peevish, uncomplaisant girlfriends, too).

Roy Strong attributed this sudden rage to the arrival in England of the ideas of the Neoplatonist, Marsilio Ficino, that were brought back by travellers returning to England full of terrible continental habits — inglesi italianati (who, as everyone knows, are diavoli incarnati).

Ficino, influenced by Aristotle, proposes melancholy not as the attribute of a dullard recluse, but the true mark of genius, a form of intellectual and spiritual excellence; far from a disease, “genial melancholy” is an inspired state of self-alienation wherein the mind is ideally separate from the

Melancholy suited the country so well that it became institutionalised

Naturally, with such terrific PR, it was the work of a moment for everyone to start cultivating long faces, furiously buying black doublets and staring at skulls a lot — something that had clearly become wildly popular in the decade between the publication of Bright’s Treatise and the moment Shakespeare thought it was enough of a thing to make fun of in Hamlet.

Melancholy suited the country so well that it became institutionalised; the seventeenth century devoted itself wholeheartedly to the pleasures of gloom, with Robert Burton’s 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy and Thomas Browne’s 1658 Urne Buriall, by most measures the greatest pieces of prose writing in English, revelling in these deep shadows with highly rewarding ruminations on mortality expressed in the most richly savourable of rolling, endless paragraphs.

As much as painting, prose, poetry and plays immersed themselves in the joys of black emotion and dejection, it was in music — with its unique ability not simply to describe and depict but to incarnate and be the thing it is about — that, throughout the centuries, the emotional and aesthetic virtues of introspection have found their greatest expression. And long before melancholy became a fashionable civilian accoutrement, it was naturally the Church — not caring whether it was modish — that had a monopoly in this fruitful field.

And here we left-footers have a distinct advantage over the rest of you. No doubt my own attraction to reflective, interior, black-edged music comes from a youth spent singing doom-laden polyphony in a huge, dark, echoing barn of a cathedral smelling vaguely of drains and incense to a few old Irish bag-ladies and stray cats.

Not only do we have the unbeatable trance-inducing monotony of Gregorian chant (anyone of a certain age will find it hard to forget this stuff, the preferred listening of the dentist in the ’70s sitcom Butterflies, described by the daily as “them moanin fellers”), but also the products of pleasingly fanatical death-cults like Spain that reached their apex in the Renaissance music of Tomás Luis de Victoria.

Holy Week was spent performing his fabulously austere, unblinking meditations on the torture and death of Jesus, which echo in musical form Michelangelo’s reply when Jacopo Pontormo asked him what sort of stuff would sell in the Spanish market: “Give them much blood and nails.”

Verdi complained how frustrating it was to write about ghastly things in music that sounded nice

Lent, and particularly Holy Week, has inspired or at least formed the pretext for vast quantities of music, from the unsurpassable bleakness of Victoria, and Thomas Tallis’s Lamentations for Maundy Thursday (written in the 1560s) to Bach’s Passions — and his even more rewardingly death-devoted cantatas — to Wagner’s Good Friday music in Parsifal, which with its suffocating sensual indulgence prompts the thought, as often with this composer, that he might have been missing the point: he really should have changed his habitual mink knickers for sandpaper for this one.

The question of how to square music’s voluptuous appeal with the need for spiritual rigour has always troubled composers: Verdi famously complained how frustrating it was to have to write about ghastly things in music that sounded nice — though how much he would have enjoyed, say, Harrison Birtwistle’s circumvention of this stricture remains moot.

One of the great Holy Week hymns is the Stabat Mater, which contemplates the anguish of Mary by the Cross: hard (and a bit dodgy) to derive much fun from that, you’d think, but Rossini somehow manages it in his 1842 setting, while remaining just about this side of sacrilege.

Joseph Haydn found himself with a similar problem when commissioned by the Holy Cave Oratory in Cádiz for orchestral sonatas devoted to The Seven Last Words of Jesus from the Cross. The idiom of 1780s classicism feels almost too sweet for such an undertaking, but Haydn reverted to an earlier turbulent style, wrought emotional tension through an extreme use of keys, and traced a line of decorous torment to accompany a ceremony (the church entirely draped in black, a single lantern hung in the murk, a single priest prostrating himself on the cold floor) of quasi-sexual masochistic glee.

You might think contemporary music, able to be as unpleasant as it likes, would discover a raison d’etre in painting misery, but the emotionally alienating effects of constant dissonance makes creating a musical language that actually communicates not easy; but not impossible, as the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina showed in her 1982 Seven Words. She combined the power of naïve art (the depiction of Christ struggling for breath, expressed through the wheezings of an accordion) with a completely original approach to notes, harmonies and sounds that works directly upon the emotions.

The Crucifixion is sentimental glop masquerading as piety

Why the English church never properly supped from the well of English glumness is a mystery. The Anglicans, beset by a neurotic desire not to upset anyone ever, never really bothered with this kind of thing, either borrowing from the Papists in extremis, or cherry-picking the more miserablist bits of Messiah for Lenten reflection. John Stainer’s 1887 oratorio The Crucifixion is typical, a pleasantly harmless bit of sentimental glop masquerading as piety — not a wet eye in the house.

There is, though, one elephantine problem with Christian depictions of doom and death: they are all predicated on the tiresome thesis, reminiscent of the survivalist mania of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, that everything’s gonna turn out OK in the end. All this Holy Week stuff is mere play-acting, based on a hollow pretence of not knowing what’s about to happen at Easter.

It’s almost the classic description of “bad faith”. Does this invalidate all pessimism in religious music, I wonder? Even the Dies Irae, the great outpouring of terror in the Requiem Mass, with its images of destruction and the horrors of eternal damnation, cannot actually bring itself to end without the hope of peace and rest.

And given that the Satanists haven’t yet come up with much music to detain us, for the truest, blackest, unredeemed musical melancholy and pessimism, we must leave the consolations of the Church for the comfortless world: and here is a wealth of material to feed the most exactingly hopeless temperament, George Crumb’s Black Angels, say, or Modest Mussorgsky’s supremely unredeemed Songs and Dances of Death.

Too much? Then let us return home to England, where admittedly the practice of melancholy can look a little cosy in the face of this heavy-duty no-quarter wretchedness. But so what? — it was always about the pleasures of melancholy, not its pains. And for their finest indulgence, look no further than the subfusc seventeenth-century viol consorts of John Dowland, the great songwriter of misery and rejection.

I’d recommend the Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares — an hour of gorgeous close harmony in the velvet, singing tones of these lovely instruments weaving a cat’s cradle of comforting unhappiness for a cold Lenten night, a copy of Burton to leaf moodily through, and a bottle of one of your more Calvinist whiskies to hand.

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