The strange attraction of sadness

My Greek tutor has recently been introducing me to Greek poetry, especially the poetry of Odysseas Elytis. The Greeks seem to have a fondness for setting poetry to music; ranging from Theodorakis’s setting of Elytis’s To Axion Esti (It is truly meet) through to settings of his nature poems for children (Sea Clover and Cicadas). I was struck by one particularly bleak poem, called To Parapono (The Complaint). Here’s my translation:

Here, half-way along the road

The time has come for me to say

Other things are the ones I love

I set out for something completely different.

Amid the true and the false

I hereby confess

I was like someone else and not me

Acting in life.

No matter how careful you are

No matter how hard you search

It will always be too late

There is no second go at life.

There’s a particularly fine rendition of it by Eleutheria Arvanitaki, set to the music of Dimitris Papadimitriou played on solo piano – see here

It seems to tap into a deep theme of sadness that (admittedly in my very limited experience) is evident in Greek music and poetry. It reminds me a bit of the sadness that is a major feature of Russian folk songs. I mention this to Maria who agrees that this is a cultural phenomenon in Greece, but the interpretation is different. To us, non-Greeks, it may seem like wallowing in sadness. However, to Greeks, it’s almost like a form of Stoic innoculation. It’s as if in The Complaint Elytis were saying: ‘Yes, that’s how life is. There is no second chance, so get on with it!’

So that is how I have now moved on to exploring Greek mourning songs (Moiroloi) which have no equivalent in England. I will try and report back on that in future.

In the meantime, I often think about the question that Michael Berkeley sometimes asks his guests on BBC Radio 3’s programme Private Passions: why do we like sad music? I can’t remember any answer to this I have heard that is totally convincing. After all, if you have the choice why would you choose to listen to something that makes you feel sad as opposed to something that makes you happy?

Probably the most convincing explanation that I have come across was in another Radio 3 programme that Stephen Johnson, the musicologist, made about how the music of Shostakovich had on three separate occasions pulled him out of deep clinical depression (Shostakovich – A Journey into Light). Shostakovich is a composer of some of the darkest, bleakest, most despairing music written in the last century. Looking for an explanation for the effect of this music, Stephen Johnson turned to Professor Paul Robertson, one of the founders of The Medici Quartet and an expert on the connection between music and science. ‘Music can give you a ladder out of somewhere extreme and painful. It provides a locus of control: you can externalise your feelings, examine them and hence become aware that change is possible. It shows that something beautiful can come out of pain. It begins to give it meaning and everything can be borne if it has meaning.’

So dark music helps us to externalise and start to understand our dark feelings and in some way to start to be able to deal with them more objectively rather than be overwhelmed by them

Professor Robertson’s scientific understanding was also borne out by his experience as a musician. He used to play with the Medici Quartet in hospitals, often to patients in truly dire states of health. So they assumes that they should play ‘cheerful’ music. However, what the patients really wanted was darker music, such as Death and the Maiden and Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet.

There is also one curious historical case of someone being cured of melancholia by music. In the eighteenth century, King Philip V of Spain probably suffered from bipolar disorder and started to live a nocturnal life which, of course, affected the whole court. To ease his pain, the famous Italian castrato, Farinelli, was invited to the court to sing 8 or 9 arias to the king and his wife every night.

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