Melancholia and Depression with Ellington, Brahms, Chopin and Baudelaire

I’ve been writing a lot about depression this month. After all, I’m on vacation, and what could be a more refreshing topic? Surprisingly enough, I came on the vacation–in the Hudson Valley north of New York City–for the month of June with my wife to do nothing but write.

So first I need to apologize to my fellow bloggers and commentators who follow the Musical Almanac. After April’s A-Z challenges and posting twice a week for several years I needed a break. Then I need to explain why I’m choosing to write about depression.

In 2012, my best friend of 35 years, died of a brain tumor. My dad died in the Fall of 2011 following mom who passed in 2008. They were 96 and 92 respectively, and though it was a big loss, we knew it was coming so it wasn’t a shock. David’s death, on the other hand, came completely out of the blue. My wife and I had spent a week with him in Rome in August of 2010 for our honeymoon. His partner of some 30 years, Gianfraco, hailed from Ischia off the coast of Naples, Italy, and as a present, he let us stay in his apartment in his villa on the island in his mountainside home town of Buonapane overlooking the Mediterranean.

We saw David through the fall of 2010 and had dinner at him apartment in DC, in February. About a month later, one of our mutual friends who worked with David, called to say David was in the hospital and had just undergone a brainscan which revealed an egg-sized tumor deep in his brain. It was inoperable, chemo was brutal and ineffective, and he died 8 months later.

In grad school where we met, we became fast friends, sharing a love of languages, food, classical and world music. He graduated in 1979 and got a job at the university of Algiers teaching English. He sent word that he could get me a job in Algeria, too. So I joined him. From there I moved to Naples, Italy and was able to find him a position at the university there. He met Gianfranco in Naples and I met Judy, and we all returned to the States in the early 1980 to go back to college. I left with another masters and moved to the DC area first and got him a job at the University of Maryland. We were close for years and he was a good uncle to my two daughters. A gourmet cook and avid pickler, we alway loved going to his house for dinner, drinking wonderful wine, and listening to some new piece of music he had discovered. His musical tastes were eclectic and he introduced me to Bruckner, Ives, Ute Lemper, Neapolitan music, and West African Grillo music.

When he died, I was lost. He was my best and oldest male friend. At work, people commiserated but not in the way one does when a parent dies. But David was as close as any sibling or parent, and he left a hole in me. That started on down the path to another depressive episode, which lasted for almost two years.

So I’ve come on this writer’s vacation to begin writing a book about how I made it through those two years and what finally brought me out.

So today, I’m posting some pieces that bring up melancholic thoughts, or ones which I used to listen to when I was depressed. Please let me know what you think. I don’t really want to bum anyone out, but I want to share with people my struggle with depression to show that it can strike anyone and there are quite effective methods to fight it. There is so much stigma about depression, that I know many people don’t seek help when it strikes. Men are especially susceptible to those thoughts as we think that talking about our emotions is a sign of weakness. Well, I’m ready to talk and I hope it helps some people get the help they need to conquer what the french poet Charles Baudelaire called “Le Cafard,” (The Cockroach) as you can hear in this poem, “La Destruction”:

(Speaking about a Demon)
« Parfois il prend, sachant mon grand amour de l’Art,
La forme de la plus séduisante des femmes,
Et, sous de spécieux prétextes de cafard,
Accoutume ma lèvre à des philtres infâmes. »

Finally, I have to play the second movement of Brahm’s Violin Concerto. I discovered it in high school, when, a face full of acne, voice cracking, and awkward romantically around girls, I used to get the blues quite a bit. I would drown my sorrow listening to this piece repeatedly while knocking back shots of tequila and calling random numbers on the phone in the hopes I could find a sympathetic soul to talk to.

Frederic Chopin, the Scherzo in B Minor, Opus 31

The French House, where I lived in my sophomore year of college in 1975, whose real name was Aydelotte Hall, was a long, low narrow cinderblock structure with two wings joined by a common lounge. Each wing had about twelve rooms on each of its two floors. The men lived on the ground floor; the women upstairs.

The rooms were long and narrow and divided by a wooden closet/bookshelf/closet divider which ran the length of the room  My first room abutted the boiler room and was nice and cozy for the most part. Unfortunately, the wooden divider between my room and the next did little to muffle sounds.

Brian, the guy next door had, like me, transferred from the same party dorm that I lived in the previous semester.  He was an affable soul–a self-taught polyglot–and so I thought he would be great to have next door. Unfortunately he was also a party animal. One night he stayed up until about two A.M. smoking dope and listening to Frank Zappa. To get back at him, the next morning around nine in the morning, I turned on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at full volume and went off to eat breakfast. About a week later, I saw him hoicking boxes out of his room. I asked what he was doing, and he said he was moving back to our old dorm. When I expressed regrets, he mumbled something about the dorm being a boring place. But for me, it will always remain a paradise.

The charm, as I mentioned in an earlier post, lay in the number of really interesting people there. The day I moved in, I was greeted at the door by a tall, gangly kid with a mass of curly black hair rising skyward from his head. Even more striking, however, was that he wore a ski jacket and both his arms were swathed in plaster casts. “I’m Bennett!” he exclaimed. “And I live right here.” He indicated an open door, the large end room. I stuck my head in the door to have look and was horrified by the site. It was an absolute pig sty, with dirty underwear and clothes strewn about the floor.  Every inch of desk and shelf space sprouted a riot of paper, music scores, and half-eaten pots of yogurt. “It’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid,” he said, but I haven’t been able to clean since I got these,” he said holding up his mantis-like appendages.

“Did you break them?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” he said. “Tendonitis.”

“What’s that,” I asked.

“It’s an inflammation of the tendons.”

“How did you get it?” I asked.

“I practiced too much.” He then told me he had come to I.U. to major in piano, but now, with his problem he was thinking of becoming a conductor. “How much did you practice?” I asked. “Oh, about 8 hours a day.”

Bennett was a year younger than me, and though a slob and an eccentric, he loved music, especially piano music, and we used to tell each other about pieces we liked or had discovered. Like me, he was a big fan of Horowitz, and he loved Chopin as well. One of Bennett’s favorite pieces was today’s work by Chopin, the Scherzo in B Minor, Opus 31. This piece has a certain demonic feel. It starts out with a low series of notes, almost drummed out like a call to attention. After that, there is a small explosion of intensity as Chopin states the theme. He returns back to the device used in the opening several times, changing the theme a little bit after each. Chopin then launches into a beautiful little waltz that sounds so sweet, lyrical and seductive. But he never stays with anything for too long. Later he changes to a grand, gushing romantic passage full of fire. Eventually he returns to the opening device a few more times, before restating the lush passage again and then rushes into an abrupt ending.

Bennett will reappear in my descriptions of the French House. He was there because like all musicians, he had an ear for languages as well and spoke French with a flourish. But what I liked best about him, apart from his love of music, was his ability to articulate his neuroses. Now I am as neurotic as the next person, but Bennett had the ability to articulate (or maybe it was just the inability to censor) every obsessive thought that came into his head. He was always ranting about something, a piece of music, a girl, his messy room, some book or score he was studying. It was great. In a funny kind of way, it made me feel less of an oddball than it was my wont to consider myself. Here was a peer who was at least as obsessive about things as I, if not more.

Chopin Biography

Buy MP3 or buy CD of Chopin’s Scherzo in B Minor, Opus 31

Frederic Chopin: Sonata No. 2 in b-flat minor

When I started this blog, my original goal was to write about a different piece of classical music every day.   I really had no idea where it would end up taking me, or whether I could actually come up with 365 pieces of music, let alone something interesting to say about each one.   It started out as a way of forcing me to write every day, which is–I’m told–the one thing that successful writers have in common. At first, it was scary, but wonderful things have started happening to me.

First and foremost, this project has renewed my interest in classical music and made me see just how rich and limitless it is. For the most part, I have just written about the mood of the piece, but one could spend years comparing different performances, performers, and even the types of instruments (authentic versus modern) on which the music is played. This is to say nothing of the intellectual challenge of actually studying each piece from a musical perspective. So far, I’ve just touched on a handful of pieces by a small number of composers. Consider the all pieces that a composer might have written during his or her lifetime! (Vivaldi: 40 operas and 70 concertos, for example.) So much music, so little time!

Next, writing about the pieces has turned into as much autobiography as journalism. Writing about a piece makes me remember when and where I was on first hearing it and makes many of those memories come alive again for me. The French novelist, Marcel Proust, bit into a small French cake, called a madeleine, which reminded him of an event from his childhood. He spent the rest of his life reliving it in his multi-volume epic, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Obviously, I don’t compare myself to him, but this has been a liberating exercise for me.

In addition, along with the memories of music come memories of so many people–friends & family; famous & obscure; helpful & and hurtful; friendly and unfriendly; good & bad; loving and nurturing. After I graduated from college, I left my hometown of Mishawaka, Indiana and set out to see the world, for the most part turning my back on all of them. Now, nearly 40  years later, I find myself regretting that, but also discover anew, just how forgiving people can be. My sister, who lives 2000 miles away, visited the site and shared some of her own remembrances and gave me encouragement.

Finally, there is the satisfaction of re-discovering each piece itself. I started out by sitting down with a tablet of paper and just brainstorming names of composers. Then I listed their works that readily sprang to mind. After a few minutes I had about 75 pieces. Over the next few days, pieces just began popping into my head. Now the list has grown to 200 works. When I sit down to write the first draft of each entry, I just look at the name of the piece, and I hear some part of it in my mind. That starts the associations and the piece almost writes itself. On weekends, I try to listen to the pieces again, and I often realize I’ve forgotten some other part of the work and it’s wonderful to hear it again. It’s almost like hearing it for the first time again.

Chopin wrote this sonata while staying at the summer residence at Nohant, with his lover, the female French writer, George Sand. The version I have–on London performed by Wilhelm Kempff–gives it the subtitle, “The Funeral March,” because he had written the third movement two years before the rest of the sonata for a funeral. You will know the tune if you have ever seen a Bugs Bunny cartoon in which a character pretends to be dead or thinks he is dead. It is dark and brooding, and I used to listen to it a lot back in a depressive period while a college student.

Why would one of the most successful composers of the day (first half of the 19th century) write such a glum piece? Chopin was only 29 at the time, but since he suffered from consumption (which most artists around this time seemed die from) death obviously was always looking over his shoulder. In fact, he died from the disease at 39, but he left a large number of works for piano–27 etudes, 52 mazurkas, 19 nocturnes, and 13 polonaises, 25 preludes as well as three sonatasand two concertos.

I had put off listening to this piece until today. Proabably fearing the depressive tone of the third movement. It surprised me then hearing that the first, second, and fourth movements are quite different in style–one romantic, the second fast, and the last kind of like someone being chased by the devil. Well, we all are, and thank god for those who’ve managed to capture that uniquely human awareness and channel it into divine works of art.

Frederic Chopin, the Scherzo in B Minor, Opus 31

The French House, whose real name was Aydelotte Hall, was a long, low narrow cinderblock structure with two wings joined by a common lounge. Each wing had about twelve rooms on each of its two floors. The men lived on the ground floor; the women upstairs.

The rooms were long and narrow and divided by a wooden closet/bookshelf/closet divider which ran the length of the room  My first room abutted the boiler room and was nice and cozy for the most part. Unfortunately, the wooden divider between my room and the next did little to muffle sounds.

Brian, the guy next door had, like me, transferred from the same party dorm that I lived in the previous semester.  He was an affable soul–a self-taught polyglot–and so I thought he would be great to have next door. Unfortunately he was also a party animal. One night he stayed up until about two A.M. smoking dope and listening to Frank Zappa. To get back at him, the next morning around nine in the morning, I turned on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at full volume and went off to eat breakfast. About a week later, I saw him hoicking boxes out of his room. I asked what he was doing, and he said he was moving back to our old dorm. When I expressed regrets, he mumbled something about the dorm being a boring place. But for me, it will always remain a paradise.

The charm, as I mentioned in an earlier post, lay in the number of really interesting people there. The day I moved in, I was greeted at the door by a tall, gangly kid with a mass of curly black hair rising skyward from his head. Even more striking, however, was that he wore a ski jacket and both his arms were swathed in plaster casts. “I’m Bennett!” he exclaimed. “And I live right here.” He indicated an open door, the large end room. I stuck my head in the door to have look and was horrified by the site. It was an absolute pig sty, with dirty underwear and clothes strewn about the floor.  Every inch of desk and shelf space sprouted a riot of paper, music scores, and half-eaten pots of yogurt. “It’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid,” he said, but I haven’t been able to clean since I got these,” he said holding up his mantis-like appendages.

“Did you break them?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” he said. “Tendonitis.”

“What’s that,” I asked.

“It’s an inflammation of the tendons.”

“How did you get it?” I asked.

“I practiced too much.” He then told me he had come to I.U. to major in piano, but now, with his problem he was thinking of becoming a conductor. “How much did you practice?” I asked. “Oh, about 8 hours a day.”

Bennett was a year younger than me, and though a slob and an eccentric, he loved music, especially piano music, and we used to tell each other about pieces we liked or had discovered. Like me, he was a big fan of Horowitz, and he loved Chopin as well. One of Bennett’s favorite pieces was today’s work by Chopin, the Scherzo in B Minor, Opus 31. This piece has a certain demonic feel. It starts out with a low series of notes, almost drummed out like a call to attention. After that, there is a small explosion of intensity as Chopin states the theme. He returns back to the device used in the opening several times, changing the theme a little bit after each. Chopin then launches into a beautiful little waltz that sounds so sweet, lyrical and seductive. But he never stays with anything for too long. Later he changes to a grand, gushing romantic passage full of fire. Eventually he returns to the opening device a few more times, before restating the lush passage again and then rushes into an abrupt ending.

Bennett will reappear in my descriptions of the French House. He was there because like all musicians, he had an ear for languages as well and spoke French with a flourish. But what I liked best about him, apart from his love of music, was his ability to articulate his neuroses. Now I am as neurotic as the next person, but Bennett had the ability to articulate (or maybe it was just the inability to censor) every obsessive thought that came into his head. He was always ranting about something, a piece of music, a girl, his messy room, some book or score he was studying. It was great. In a funny kind of way, it made me feel less of an oddball than it was my wont to consider myself. Here was a peer who was at least as obsessive about things as I, if not more.

Chopin Biography

Buy MP3 or buy CD of Chopin’s Scherzo in B Minor, Opus 31

Frederic Chopin: Sonata No. 2 in b-flat minor

When I started this blog, I really had no idea where it would end up taking me, or whether I could actually come up with 365 pieces of music, let alone something interesting to say about each one. It started out as a way of forcing me to write every day, which is–I’m told–the one thing that successful writers have in common. At first, it was scary, but wonderful things have started happening to me.

First and foremost, this project has renewed my interest in classical music and made me see just how rich and limitless it is. For the most part, I have just written about the mood of the piece, but one could spend years comparing different performances, performers, and even the types of instruments (authentic versus modern) on which the music is played. This is to say nothing of the intellectual challenge of actually studying each piece from a musical perspective. So far, I’ve just touched on a handful of pieces by a small number of composers. Consider the all pieces that a composer might have written during his or her lifetime! (Vivaldi: 40 operas and 70 concertos, for example.) So much music, so little time!

Next, writing about the pieces has turned into as much autobiography as journalism. Writing about a piece makes me remember when and where I was on first hearing it and makes many of those memories come alive again for me. The French novelist, Marcel Proust, bit into a small French cake, called a madeleine, which reminded him of an event from his childhood. He spent the rest of his life reliving it in his multi-volume epic, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Obviously, I don’t compare myself to him, but this has been a liberating exercise for me.

In addition, along with the memories of music come memories of so many people–friends & family; famous & obscure; helpful & and hurtful; friendly and unfriendly; good & bad; loving and nurturing. After I graduated from college, I left my hometown of Mishawaka, Indiana and set out to see the world, for the most part turning my back on all of them. Now, nearly twenty years later, I find myself regretting that, but also discover anew, just how forgiving people can be. My sister, who lives 2000 miles away, visited the site and shared some of her own remembrances and gave me encouragement.

Finally, there is the satisfaction of re-discovering each piece itself. I started out by sitting down with a tablet of paper and just brainstorming names of composers. Then I listed their works that readily sprang to mind. After a few minutes I had about 75 pieces. Over the next few days, pieces just began popping into my head. Now the list has grown to 200 works. When I sit down to write the first draft of each day’s entry, I just look at the name of the piece, and I hear some part of it in my mind. That starts the associations and the piece almost writes itself. On weekends, I try to listen to the pieces again, and I often realize I’ve forgotten some other part of the work and it’s wonderful to hear it again. It’s almost like hearing it for the first time again.

Chopin wrote this sonata while staying at the summer residence at Nohant, with his lover, the female French writer, George Sand. The version I have–on London performed by Wilhelm Kempff–gives it the subtitle, “The Funeral March,” because he had written the third movement two years before the rest of the sonata for a funeral. You will know the tune if you have ever seen a Bugs Bunny cartoon in which a character pretends to be dead or thinks he is dead. It is dark and brooding, and I used to listen to it a lot back in a depressive period while a college student.

Why would one of the most successful composers of the day (first half of the 19th century) write such a glum piece? Chopin was only 29 at the time, but since he suffered from consumption (which most artists around this time seemed die from) death obviously was always looking over his shoulder. In fact, he died from the disease at 39, but he left a large number of works for piano–27 etudes, 52 mazurkas, 19 nocturnes, and 13 polonaises, 25 preludes as well as three sonatasand two concertos.

I had put off listening to this piece until today. Proabably fearing the depressive tone of the third movement. It surprised me then hearing that the first, second, and fourth movements are quite different in style–one romantic, the second fast, and the last kind of like someone being chased by the devil. Well, we all are, and thank god for those who’ve managed to capture that uniquely human awareness and channel it into divine works of art.

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