Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

The sound of melancholy

What becomes of the broken-hearted? They put a record on. Clemency Burton-Hill spins some sad tunes

Clemency Burton-Hill | July/August 2013

"Besides that excellent power it hath to expel many other diseases, [music] is a sovereign remedy against despair and melancholy." So said Robert Burton in 1621. But if music is a tonic, it is also indispensable when we’d rather wallow in the weltschmerz. Like music, melancholy is a language beyond words. And when they get together, something happens. A truly melancholy tune glows with the possibility of redemption.

OTIS REDDING I've Been Loving You Too Long

This was his first big hit in 1965. The emotion here is the meat melancholy feeds on. Your love grows cold; my love grows stronger; our affair grows old. If melancholy is the hardest mood to share, Otis gives us all a gift here. Sex and love and infatuation and heartache and beauty and hope and pain; and that keening wail on the word "tired" that could be nobody else.

FRANCIS POULENC Melancolie (Alexandre Tharaud, piano)

Written during the Nazi occupation of France, this seems like a lyrical pastorale. But, as befits a man who probably belonged to the Resistance and was at constant risk of persecution for being openly gay, shadows gradually lengthen over its surface. The beauty that hovers in the wings is both tender and devastating.

KEREN ANN All the Beautiful Girls

Wraith-like skin, jet-black hair, toxic sentiments ("what upsets me the most/That instead of a man, I married a ghost") enveloped in velvet. This half-Dutch, half-Israeli songbird grew up listening to Dylan and Leonard Cohen while her dad played Billie Holiday and Chet Baker. "What attracts me in general is melancholy in every form," she has said. "With classical music, for me it’s always been more Chopin and Ravel than Mozart." On which note…

CHOPIN Preludes Op 28, No 4 (Daniel Barenboim, piano)

Few composers grapple with unending solitude in a universe that neither cares nor notices like this frail Polish genius. He wrote the famous Funeral March, and asked that this Prelude be played at his own. In two freighted minutes, from the yearning opening interval to Barenboim’s ravishing final smorzando, it demonstrates the unique power of music. Two hands, saying different things: plaintiveness and resolution existing in the same bar, even the same chord.

I AM KLOOT Bullets

Melancholy asks for something more even as it settles for less. With its dirty blues riff and early-morning regrets ("Do you think that someone may have snuck into your life/And overnight has changed the locks?"), this finely wrought ballad, from the excellent album "Let It All In" (2013), stalks the no-man’s-land between the two states.

CHET BAKER & BILL EVANS Alone Together

Two jazz masters, both heroin addicts, both capable of heart-wrenching and hypnotic introspection (Chet on the trumpet, Bill on the keys), and never so alone as when together. This opening track on "The Complete Legendary Sessions" works its magic slowly.

BACH Behold And See... from Cantana 46 (Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe)

If aliens were about to destroy the planet, someone once said, we should play them the Bach Cantatas to show them what we are capable of. The lament that opens this one is a case in point. Hear those sopranos soar, bust through the Earth’s atmosphere, and keep going. And know that even ineffable sorrow is redeemed.

All at iTunes, or find the full list on Spotify 

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.