The Image of Melancholy – Background

“Besides my other numerous circle of acquaintances I have one more intimate confidant – my melancholy. In the midst of my joy, in the midst of my work, she waves to me, calls me to one side, even though physically I stay put. My melancholy is the most faithful mistress I have known, what wonder, then, that I love her in return.”
Søren Kierkegaard


Autumn in Sjøbygda

Driving down a never-ending dirt-road through a thick forest with the occasional glimpse of a lake down to the right. An old schoolhouse appears in the midst of nowhere, another building dwells down by the lake – they look slightly sad and deserted. Anybody here? Quiet. Fresh air. Sunset. Tranquillity. Cooking our first meal together. No mobile connection and only one spot in which the internet is working. Forming a circle in what used to be the classroom: six instruments, one singer, a pile of music, logs burning in the open fireplace... Sound.

This is Sjøbygda – this is the place where I’ve invited some of my friends to explore different aspects of melancholy in music.

It’s a sad song

The music in our programme does not belong to any particular style, nationality or period in time; it’s rather a string of tunes, songs and expressions that have all had a special and personal significance to me throughout my career. Discovering these tunes and hearing the songs in various settings have been eye-opening experiences for me. Together they form a musical matrimony between the Nordic melancholy, the rich sounds of the Elizabethan consort and a modern approach to music-making.

It has always been the ‘sad songs’ that have affected me the most. They can deepen my sad state of mind and, paradoxically, they may even have a healing effect. For me, melancholy not only synonymous with sadness and despair, it is a state also harbouring reflection, meditation and relief. In various folk traditions, for instance, bridal songs are in minor keys, or a mix of major and minor, perhaps reflecting the conflicting emotions brought on by the transition from child to adult and the uncertainty of moving from one home to another.

The perspective

In ancient Greece the philosopher and physician Hippocrates (460–370 BC) believed that the human moods, behaviours and emotions were influenced by the bodily fluids blood, phlegm, and yellow and black bile. An excess of one of these would correspond to a certain character or personality.

”Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark what discord follows!”
Willliam Shakespeare, from Troilus and Cressida

The Greeks thought that certain musical modes or scales could affect the balance of the four fluids – and that music thus could be a medical remedy to affect or soothe the different humours. These ideas also informed the music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Rhetorical tools in the music (affects) could influence human moods – and also health.

Melancholy derives from Greek melankholia, from melas (black) + khole (bile). Harbouring black bile in the organism did not necessarily signify that one would be a melancholic. Those who were generally balanced could have episodes of mild melancholy, similar to what we call ‘the blues’, while less stable persons might be more affected by it and develop a syndrome akin to depression.

In post-Elizabethan England, around 1600, melancholy was in high fashion among composers and writers, and among them none was more renowned than the great singer/songwriter John Dowland, an arch-melancholic whose motto was: ‘Semper Dowland, semper dolens’, ‘always Dowland, always mourning’. Similar cults and fashions among artists have continued ever since.

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