Music, OldVenue

Musically Minded

It is a truth universally acknowledged – as well as scientifically suggested – that there is often a correlation between artistic genius and mental illness. Many masters of art, literature and music have long been heralded as paragons of this correlation, able to convey a deep inner turmoil through work that is both skilful and stirring. Owing to the increasing success of singer-songwriters (as well as the highly publicised lifestyles of musicians) over the last fifty years, mental illness has gained a high profile through the fame of those who have suffered. Immediately, examples such as Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis come to mind as part of a sad trope of famous rock musicians who have committed suicide after suffering from depression.
Unsurprisingly, however, the presence of mental illness within great musical works reaches back to a time before our current widespread awareness of such issues, and as a result there were many who suffered in relative silence.
It is not as widely known, for example, that composers like Frederic Chopin, Gustav Mahler or Sergei Rachmaninov suffered from depression and bipolar disorder. From a historical point of view, there is often little concrete evidence to go by, but the music of these composers opens a window through which, many years later, we can gain a clearer insight into the instability of the minds that created it.
Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, a devilishly difficult pianistic tongue twister that makes use of rapid, consistent C minor scale runs in the left hand and crashing five-note chords in the right, is known for being the composer’s despairing response to the news that his homeland of Poland had failed in their uprising against Russia in 1831. He said of it ‘all this has caused me much pain’, and reports that Chopin was known to have fits of mania, seem to be supported by the sheer chaotic sound of the notes as they run into one another over a huge range.
Similarly, the fourth movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, now known as the Tragic, is seen by some as a mirror of the composer’s difficult personal life and his long periods of depression. Not known for his brevity, the final movement can stretch on for some 30 minutes, but is best known for the three very loud and unexpected hammer blows at the conclusion after the music begins to settle at a quiet volume; the final of which the composer said ‘fells a man like a tree’. Mahler’s wife Alma often likened the three hammer blows to the three tragic events that devastated his life: the death of his daughter, the diagnosis of a fatal heart condition and his forced resignation from his job at the opera in Vienna.
Despite Mahler’s personal tragedy, in some cases the immense pressures of the creative process for composers like Rachmaninov became too much and led to a period of mental illness and stagnancy. After his first symphony premiered in 1897 and was universally panned by critics (which may have been due to the conductor being intoxicated for the entire performance), Rachmaninov sank into a deep and lengthy depression. As a young composer, his confidence was shattered completely and he did not write any music for another three years, after which his family persuaded him to seek hypnotic therapy to overcome his mental block.
Though these pre-20th century examples are cases in which mental illness was not widely recognised until after the death of the composer, it should still be said that even in more contemporary times, many musicians still suffer in silence and obscurity. Notably, acoustic singer-songwriter Nick Drake was only 26 when he died of an anti-depressant overdose in 1973. His crippling shyness and depression led him to become increasingly insular in the last years of his life, and as a result he rarely played live and did not achieve any great commercial success during his lifetime. Posthumously, however, his work saw a revival and he is now recognised as a staple of British folk music, with many of his previously unreleased songs being made available to a large audience.
More famously perhaps, Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd retreated into obscurity after suffering a mental breakdown strongly influenced by his heavy use of hallucinogenic drugs in the late 1960s. Despite receiving royalties from the band until his death in 2006, he had no contact with any other members after 1975 and refused any invitations back into the spotlight.
Mental illness has cast a long shadow over the lives of many highly regarded musical figures. The question remains though as to whether the quality and emotional scope of the art created by the musician is affected or even increased by suffering of such a kind – an unfortunate twist of irony in the cruelly competitive world of music.


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May 2022
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