In 1737, the queen of Spain invited Farinelli, the celebrated singer, to sing for Philip V, who suffered from deep melancholy. Farinelli, himself a melancholic, cured the king with his singing the first time he performed for the monarchs; as a result, “it was determined that he should be taken into the service of the court,” and “for the first ten years of his residence at the court of Spain, during the life of Philip the Vth, he sung every night to that monarch” (Charles Burney, The Present State of Music in France and Italy, 218). In the modern age, melancholia was not a subject of music, but rather permeated it. From the Baroque onward, musical compositions about melancholia — which have an external and “rhetorical” rather than fateful relationship to it — are perhaps less melancholic than works in which melancholia is not brought out at all as a subject.14 Melancholia does not tolerate objective definition (that is why its true medium is music), and if music is “about” anything at all, it is about there being no point in the world in relation to which one might define, or make, one’s position unequivocally. The modern melancholic, fraught with tensions and, at the same time, infinitely resigned, makes his appearance in the company of music: John Dowland’s collection Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, Gesualdo’s madrigals, Monteverdi’s music for the stage, and Purcell’s operas and choral works alike articulate melancholia — and one does not need to strain too much to hear in these works the later tones of Schubert or Schumann, Mahler or Wagner, Satie or Webern, Giacinto Scelsi or John Cage or even Klaus Nomi. There is no sense in assembling a list of names: the music of the modern age is not melancholic because it spreads a doleful mood, but because it was created in the form of music. Whether sorrowful or cheerful in mood (how meaningless that distinction is, as if profound cheerfulness and inconsolable sorrow did not spring from the same stock!), music, from the Baroque onward, has had only a single true topic: the homelessness and the fateful-seeming abandonment of the modern melancholic. “Music,” writes Bruno Walter, “is no daytime art; it does not yield its secret roots or its ultimate depths to the unshadowed soul. It comes out of the dark, and must be understood and felt in the dark; it is akin to the somber heave of the ocean, not to the clear blue of the Mediterranean” (Walter, Gustav Mahler, 121). Or turning for help to Céline, who experienced the melancholic’s fear of and desire for death more than anyone, and therefore was truly sensitive to music as welclass="underline" “Nobody can really resist music. You don’t know what to do with your heart, you’re glad to give it away. At the bottom of all music you have to hear the tune without notes more just for us, us all, the tune of Death” (Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night, 264).
The melancholic of the modern age is, above all else, sad, the heroic endeavor and universal desperation of the Renaissance having been supplanted by mere despondency. He has been denied the possibility of creating a new world, but also prevented from dodging a world that is alien to him. Turning away from the world takes place inside the soul — the world torments and crushes as it pleases anyone who, by creating an inner world, tries in vain to escape from external pain. The sadness of the modern melancholic springs from helplessness; whatever he does, he feels that all efforts are futile — no one is capable of cracking the world’s armor. Sadness, however paradoxical it may sound, is at one and the same time a visor and armor — a visor because the melancholic, by turning into himself, refuses to take cognizance of the fact that the despondency deriving from helplessness was actually imposed on him; a weapon because it gives an opportunity to create a new, inner world in opposition to the outside one. The melancholic would give himself over to despondency with masochistic pleasure: the soul always has a realm into which no one else is permitted entry. That dominion extends “inwardly”; the stronger the external pressure, the more the inner boundaries expand. The world is unacquainted with this dual nature of sorrow: it fails to notice both that a person can take cover in sorrowfulness, and that sadness is capable of denying everything. All that is seen is that sorrow always renders a melancholic weak, and his weakness is explained by his own superior strength: “Whatever excuse we may find for our sorrows, often it is only self-interest and vanity that cause them,” La Rochefoucauld opines (Collected Maxims and Other Reflections, V: 232), offering a novel interpretation of sadness: instead of connecting it with an all-embracing despair, he tries to ensure a place for it in the preordained framework of an unchangeable world. If sorrow depends only on interest or vanity, then this rules out making the world itself questionable: a person’s sadness is caused by this or that not being to his liking in this world, but that sadness would not extend to the whole world itself. The world always tries to console the sad and convince them that sooner or later everything will work out. And indeed, in the modern age, the biggest offence against decorum is to thrust someone who is despairing and sad into even greater depths of despair by telling him that he does have a reason to be sad and, what is more, not just because some trouble has befallen him, but because the world is deliberately constructed to be a fount of woes. One is just as much expected to console a sad man as to deceive a terminally ill one about his true condition — consolation, however, conceals deception: it does not abolish despondency but defers it, makes it invisible. And sadness that has been made invisible proliferates like cancer: the less the consoled person takes note of it, the more violently will it well up at an unexpected moment.