Daily Archives: June 23, 2009

A Pleasing Melancholy

In The Anatomy of Melancholy, the early 17th-century English churchman and scholar, Robert Burton, wrote:

Many Men are melancholy by hearing Musick, but it is a pleasing melancholy that it causeth.¹

Someone like me, a fan of opera, black metal, death metal, punk, folk laments, early blues, dark ambient, etc., would have to agree.

Naturally, those who are intimately familiar with melancholy might also seek out the grotesque in the visual arts. So it’s no surprise that the highly neurotic and death-obsessed Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was intrigued by the work of French artist Jacques Callot (1592-1635). In addition to more typical religious and theatrical images, Callot’s etchings also include a series of Gobbi (“grotesque dwarfs”), crippled beggars, and the miseries of war

Mahler1Though Mahler later withdrew the programmatic summary for his Symphony No. 1 in D major, he stated that its third movement was “a funeral march in the manner of Callot.”³ Specifically, Mahler was stimulated by Callot’s “The Huntsman’s Funeral” where a hunter’s coffin is borne by animals and accompanied by other animals bearing torches, dancing or playing instruments. The incongruity in the artwork fits well with such aesthetics as Mahler’s use of an oversized orchestra to play warped versions of simple folk melodies.4

Both Callot and Mahler’s works also demonstrate that irony and parody sometimes are the leavening that makes melancholy more pleasing to the eyes and ears.

— Tim

  1. Excerpts from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and a list of compositions inspired by the visual arts both can be found in Herbert Kupferberg’s Book of Classical Music Lists.
  2. Brown University’s 1970 Callot exhibition catalog notes that “the Gobbi were in actuality a well known troupe of dwarfs who performed throughout Italy during the early years of the seventeenth century,” but Callot’s twisted and deformed figures were an exaggeration.
  3. A detailed analysis of Mahler’s revoked program for his first symphony can be found in Hans Redlich’s foreword to the 1966 Eulenberg edition of the score.
  4. The Pittsburgh Symphony began its 2008-2009 Mellon Grand Classics season with Mahler’s first symphony and ended it with his second symphony (“Resurrection”). More Mahler symphonies will be heard by the PSO under the capable baton of music director Manfred Honeck.


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