Classical Music

How low can you go? Singer Iestyn Davies’s melancholic playlist | Classical music

Music is “a sovereign remedy against despair and melancholy, and will drive away the devil himself”, wrote Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621. Yet music is not simply a cure for sadness or grief; it speaks where words run out, it enables those in mourning to commune with the inexpressible, and possesses the unique ability to access and transfigure our feelings of lack and loss. Are we wallowing when we listen to sad songs or are we hearing a deeper truth behind the plain facts of minor chords and chromatic dissonances?

Today, the term “melancholy” has lost its currency in the psychological lexicon. “Depression” has emphatically replaced it as the diagnosis for our culture’s relationship with loss and suffering. Yet if one word best describes the experience of so many in the past few years of pandemic life, it is melancholy – and it is to music that so many were able to turn during those isolated months for solace and contemplation. As Burton wrote four centuries ago, “Sorrow is both mother and daughter of Melancholy, symptom and chief cause; they tread in a ring, Melancholy can only be overcome with Melancholy”.

An Anatomy of Melancholy is at the Barbican, London, 27-30 October

The obvious beauty of this song is in Rachael Price’s rich-hued vocals, but within the lyrics there is the tension of a relationship on the brink of collapse and the anticipation of loss to come that is at odds with the warm and gentle groove that Lake Street Dive bring to the music. It reminds me of the beauty of tears and the resolution that follows dispute.

Everything Buckley sings is laced with the melancholic poignancy of his early death at 30 from drowning in the Mississippi River. Like Lake Street Dive’s Anymore, this song deals with the final throes of a relationship: “Just hear this, and then I’ll go”, Buckley asks. It erupts into an almost desperate chorus of pleading for one final kiss but there is always a feeling of resignation.

I can’t help smiling during this song, despite Morrissey’s ever doleful voice. The chorus touches on the popular Elizabethan trope of happiness in dying, but this isn’t through heartbreak: being crushed by a double-decker bus alongside the object of your desire – “such a heavenly way to die”.

Burton probably knew the melancholic strains and verses popular in his lifetime by John Dowland. Semper Dowland Semper Dolens (Always Dowland, Ever Doleful) was the latter’s punning byline, expressing the profound melancholy that pervaded the court of Elizabeth I. This song is pure and unadulterated melancholy – one of the finest ever set in the English language. Knowing Dowland played his lute in the cellars of the king of Denmark’s castle I can’t help but hear the possible place of composition not only in the text but in the cunning chromatic dissonances. In particular, the singer finishes after the piece has cadenced as if abstracted from reality and lost in the dying echoes of his underground tomb.

No matter what SG Lewis writes he always seems to hit a mournful, nostalgic tone in his choice of chords and melodies. The heavy reliance on reverb in this track only adds to this sense of the music being suspended in space and time. It chimes nicely with the line “…takes me back to a place where music was a life giver”. I had this on repeat during my walks in lockdown.

This recording is one of the most beautiful bits of countertenor singing I know. Milton’s poetry asks for respite from the garish light of day, invoking sleep and time to dream before finally summoning music to accompany reawakening. Handel sets this scene of transfiguration in a hymn-like prayer of peaceful wonderment in Arcadia that simply bathes the listener in utter beauty.

Damon Albarn is said to have been inspired to write this after seeing a tea towel printed with a map of the seas around the British Isles. For me, it conjures up the feeling of being tucked up warm in bed in the early hours listening to the shipping forecast, eyes closed, imaging those gale-force winds and crashing waves on the very edge of our island, with ships and fishermen battling intrepidly as they steer their passage safely home. Blur tap into this feeling of protected isolation with a play on the word “solo” where Albarn accents its second syllable to tease the ear into hearing “so low”; the message here is that the “low” won’t hurt you, in fact it will be there when you are alone, finding ways to (help you) stay solo. Again, melancholy can only be overcome with melancholy.

I first heard this midway through a very intense facial at an airport hotel in Vancouver and was unable to ask what it was – but it was so beautiful I had to find out. I memorised the big melody and later on whistled it into a tweet, and I think it was the pianist Stephen Hough who named the tune in one. I love the yearning suspensions such as the rising seventh in my favourite melody of the piece, which pulls at the heart strings and then falls again, as if resigned to enjoy this sweet tension for ever.

A mazurka is a musical form based on Polish folk dances, and throughout this performance I have the feeling of a bygone age and distant traditions. There is a wonderful black and white film online of a young Martha Argerich playing this, which is how I first encountered it. Perhaps experiencing this music in monochrome has brought my hearing it into an even more melancholic guise.

Lutenist Thomas Dunford. Photograph: Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images

Written by the 17th-century French musician Marin Marais for viola da gamba, inspired by the organ stop that imitates the human voice (La voix humaine) and then here transcribed for lute by Thomas Dunford I am always dumfounded in recitals alongside Thomas at how his playing of this beautiful piece transfixes audiences almost to the point of hypnosis. At times, I swear you hear the sound of the space between the notes; it is a great example of the art of finding something in the music that the composer has been unable to actually notate.

Iestyn Davies is in An Anatomy of Melancholy at the Pit, Barbican , London, 27 -30 October. The 28 October performance will be livestreamed. Tickets for live and online shows are at

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