I’m not persuaded by the idea that the arts – music, poetry, painting, drama – provide an escape from real life. If art is good, it’s much more complex than that: it makes sense of our human experience.
It makes us feel that we’re not alone, that someone else has been there before us, is walking with us, understands something about what we’re going through and lays it out in front of us in the form of a song or a symphony, a play or a poem.
This explains why tragedies are popular, and why we reach for sad songs and poems to help us make sense of our own grief and pain. But it is, of course, also true that reading an ecstatic nature poem or listening to joyful music can lift the spirits.
In this time of lockdown, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has put on happy music and taken to dancing around the kitchen to block out the news, get some energy going, banish negative thoughts and make the heart beat that bit faster.
To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, and while thinking of the challenges to our mental health that all of us are facing, I’ve put together a playlist. Unlike many other playlists, it’s not all happy, uplifting music – although there’s plenty of that too.
But I’ve also included music which shows us that the feelings that might be exacerbated by these extreme times – loneliness, anxiety, grief for what’s lost – are shared human experiences and that musicians have explored these for centuries.
At the moment, feeling captive or held within the four walls of our homes is a condition experienced by many of us, all around the world. The composer Olivier Messiaen was imprisoned in a freezing cold POW camp in Silesia in the early years of the Second World War.
During his imprisonment, he managed to get hold of paper, pencils and a desk, and wrote his visionary Quartet for the End of Time for four professional musicians who happened to be in the same camp.
The performance of the work was an electrifying moment, with prisoners from all walks of life crammed into a dining hut to listen intently to the music. The movement I’ve chosen, ‘Louange’, seems to stretch the idea of time and space, with its long phrases which seem to defy time, imagining a universe far beyond the confinement of a prison camp in Europe.
From his prison, Messiaen was imagining the infinite space of eternity, but sometimes, we just have to let the grief overwhelm us. In Handel’s opera Rinaldo, the imprisoned Almirena sings ‘Lascia ch’io piangia’: ‘just let me weep for this cruel loss of my freedom’.
Beethoven was under a different kind of confinement when he wrote his Seventh Symphony; recovering from one of his bouts of serious ill health in a spa town. The central two movements of this great symphony span a huge range of emotions.
The Allegretto is a set of variations on a simple, repetitive, almost obsessive rhythm which emerges out of darkness into light, nobility and triumph – and steps back into dark, questioning territory again. Sweeping all this away, the third movement is a riotous, abandoned dance of joy: Wagner described it as ‘the Apotheosis of the Dance’.
Loneliness and separation from the people, work and places that make up our lives can be an overwhelming feeling at this time. Frank Sinatra sums it up, as he so often does, in his searing ballad, written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen. The sinuous vocal lines describe ‘the heartbreak that only the lonely know’.
In Schubert’s Winter Journey, the lonely traveller sings a song called ‘Einsamkeit’ (Loneliness). His pain is made greater because the beautiful weather seems to mock his emotions – something which those of us sitting out lockdown through this lovely spring weather may identify with.
But Carole King, one of the world’s greatest songwriters, reminds us that we’re not alone. And, if you believe in angels, or even if you don’t, it could be comforting to listen to Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel singing about a group of angels watching over the children as they lie down to sleep, fearful in the dark forest where terrors lie.
Anxiety is a familiar friend or foe to many of us at this time. Bernard Herrmann’s opening credits for Hitchock’s Vertigo puts us on the edge of our seat, raising our pulse rate and preparing us for the anxious, edgy mood and neurosis of the film.
Dmitri Shostakovich lived under constant threat from the Soviet authorities, and his 15 string quartets have been seen as a kind of coded diary of his life during a period in which Joseph Stalin took a worryingly close interest in his music. This short movement from the eighth quartet portrays the anxiety vividly and, at its climax, the quartet repeats a four-note motif – DSCH – which spells out the composer’s name in music, as if to say ‘I’m still here, I exist, despite all this!’
Nobody does twitchy anxiety better than David Byrne, and his ‘Life During Wartime’ manages to convey extreme anxiety and threat at the same time as being uplifting – it’s impossible not to get up and join in his nervy dance.
Taking a mindful, meditative approach, through becoming hyper aware and taking time to notice everything, is a time-honoured way of dealing with anxiety. A composer who lived this idea through her music was Pauline Oliveros, who died in 2016. She invented the idea of ‘deep listening’ (actively, intently listening to sounds) and she linked this concept closely to mental health, to providing a still counterpoint to the world outside. ‘Take a walk at night’ she suggested. ‘Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.’
When we’re anxious, someone simply saying ‘Don’t worry about anything’ can seem impossibly glib, but perhaps not if it’s done so ecstatically and with such brilliant Latin rhythms as in Stevie Wonder’s ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing’, or with the pared-back, joyous perfection Bob Marley brings to ‘Three Little Birds’.
Verdi, at the end of his opera Falstaff, dismisses all the cares and woes and intrigues which have gone before with a joyful chorus, the words of which are ‘all of the world’s a joke’. But, again, this is far from an easy waving away of the complexity of life. The chorus is set as a fugue, one of the most evolved and complex musical forms. If life is a joke, it’s an elevated, sophisticated and, ultimately, a noble one.
More pure joy, made all the more intense because of the sophisticated musical workings going on under the surface, can be heard in Vikingur Olafsson’s recent recording of Bach’s ‘Now be joyful together…’ in which a Lutheran chorale rings out underneath brilliant keyboard pyrotechnics.
But many of us find that we have to live for the day, for the moment, and if there’s a bad day, or a difficult night, the sun will rise and there is the opportunity of a new start. Nothing says this to me more powerfully than Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s legendary performance from Handel’s Theodora. ‘As with rosy steps the morn advancing drives the shades of night, / so from virtuous toils well borne, raise thou our hopes of endless light’.
The show must go on(line)
Sadly, for everyone’s safety, our venues are currently closed. But you can still get your Southbank Centre fix online. We will continue to share inspiring and thought-provoking arts stories through our website and social channels.
As a charity, we rely on ticket sales for a huge chunk of our income. But now they’ve stopped. And it's a huge worry to us, and the people we work with. We all need the escape of art and culture; it can inspire and unite us. So please – if you can afford to – consider a donation to the Southbank Centre today, to help us be there for you in the future.