Stretched out on the grass,

a boy and a girl.

Savoring their oranges,

giving their kisses like waves exchanging foam.

Stretched out on the beach,

a boy and a girl. Savoring their limes,

giving their kisses like clouds exchanging foam.

Stretched out underground,

a boy and a girl.

Saying nothing, never kissing,

giving silence for silence.

(Octavio Paz, 1914-1998 English Translation by Muriel Rukeyser, 1913-1980)

The King's Singers (main entrance of King's College Chapel, University of Cambridge, in background), probably about 1968 

Urlicht (“Primal Light”) (Gustav Mahler) is the 4th movement of Symphony #2, “The Resurrection”). Mahler’s second symphony (premiered in 1895) is widely regarded as one of the great symphonies, and it marked the real start of Mahler’s career. Choral symphonies are relatively uncommon, an earlier work of this type being Beethoven’s Symphony #9 (another great symphony). “The Resurrection” Symphony is in c minor and is scored for a huge orchestra, a large choir and two soloists (a soprano and a contralto). Movement 4 marks the first entry of the contralto (whereas the soprano and chorus do not enter until the final movement). The song “Urlicht” represents the desire to unite with God in the afterlife, it reflects Mahler’s belief in the beauty of the resurrection and the afterlife, and is influenced by both Christian and Jewish traditions.  A striking feature of the movement is the brass interlude that follows the first words of the song  (“O Roschen Rot, Oh Red Rose”). The Swedish contralto in this recording, Anna Larsson, has a purity of tone and gives the piece a feeling of melancholy, yearning and hope.  The orchestra is the 170 strong Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. They are conducted by Gustavo Duhamel and are joined by the Youth Choir of Great Britain  The setting is the Royal Alberta Hall, London, during the  “Proms” season of 2011 (August 5).​

Billie Holiday - (In My) Solitude (Decca Records 1946)
"(In My) Solitude" is a 1934 jazz standard, composed by Duke Ellington, with lyrics by Eddie DeLange, Irving Mills. Billie's accompanied by Chris Griffin, Joe Guy tp; Bill Stegmeyer as; Hank Ross, Bernard Kaufman, Armand Camgros ts; Joe Springer p; Tiny grimes g; John Simmons b; Sidney Catlett ds. Recorded on January 22, 1946, New York City ...

A Boy and a Girl (Eric Whitacre). A Boy and a Girl  is an exceptionally haunting poem  by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz (1914-1998) who won the 1990 Nobel Prize for LiteratureA Boy and a Girl is set here for four-part choir by the Grammy-winning American composer, Eric Whitacre.  Unconventional chord progressions and rhythmic patterns (sometimes referred to as neoimpressionism) are Whitacre’s hallmarks. His approach is illustrated by A Boy and a Girl, which, although composed in the neutral key of C major, has sequences of painful dissonances which are eventually resolved.  A wordless and meditative  coda, without dissonances, ends the piece, perhaps reflecting the peace of the grave. VOCES8 is yet another example of an award- winning a cappella choir* formed in 2003 by ex-choristers of Westminster Abbey Choir, England.  They display a diverse repertoire ranging from 13th century polyphony to contemporary commissions and renditions of pop and jazz pieces (including Bach ). They sing with astonishing purity and precision.  It’s illustrated by the ravishing sound of this piece. The setting is the VOCES8 Centre in London, England.

*Footnote: The English seem to have a knack when it comes to a cappella choirs. One of the first was the well known Kings Singers who were formed in 1968 by former members of the King’s College Choir, Cambridge (King’s College link). See also Tenebrae and Erebus Ensemble above (Miserere Me and The Lamb respectively)

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee 
Little Lamb I'll tell thee, 
Little Lamb I'll tell thee! 
He is called by thy name, 
For he calls himself a Lamb: 
He is meek & he is mild, 
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb, 
We are called by his name. 
Little Lamb God bless thee. 
Little Lamb God bless thee.

In My Solitude (Billie Holiday). The jazz standard, In My Solitude, was written by Duke Ellington in 1934 (lyrics click here) and it is regarded as one of Billie Holliday’s signature songs. Billie Holliday (born in Harlem NYC in 1915), and also known as Lady Day, is regarded as one of the greatest of jazz singers, sharing this honor with her contemporaries such as Ella Fitzgerald (born 1917) and Sarah Vaughan (born 1924). Her life was depicted in the 1972 movie, Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross.  Billie Holiday experienced a difficult childhood, and later succumbed to alcohol and drug abuse.  These contributed to her early death at age 44 (in 1959). (Ella Fitzgerald died in 1996 and Sarah Vaughan in 1990.)  In this recording from 1946 Billie Holiday expresses the deeply melancholic lyrics with a unique and penetrating depth of feeling. Demonstrating that not all melancholic music is written in minor keys, In My Solitude was written in E-flat major (three flats), a key known for its flexibility of expression (compare symphony #22, The Philosopher, of Haydn to the 1812 Overture of Tchaikovsky). 

You might like to compare Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit.

Peter Toohey

Oh Danny Boy ( Traditional). Another favorite piece played (some would say overplayed) at weddings (see Ave Maria above). Oh Danny Boy is a traditional piece usually thought to be Irish in origin, but the text was actually written by an English lawyer, F.E. Weatherly. There is some debate as to who is singing to Danny, a lover or a parent, but “the pipes are calling” implies he is leaving to fight in a war. The singer fears his/her death will occur before Danny returns, but will hear his footsteps from the grave using the most melancholic phrase: “And I shall hear tho’ soft tread above me”.  This piece is composed in C major, a neutral key that conveys innocence and simplicity. The simple melody rises and falls, lulling the listener into a sorrowful state. It is perhaps one of the saddest songs of all for many, including the writer. The singers are an early English a cappella group, The King’s Singers, formed in 1968 by former choristers with King’s College Choir, Cambridge. They brought fresh air and approachability to the then somewhat stuffy world of classical music, covered pieces from Bach to the Beatles, and were an early example of a crossover approach. For a further example of crossover listen to Renee Flemings rendition of Oh Danny Boyat Senator John McCain’s funeral in 2018.  

Ave Maria (“Hail Mary”). This is not the popular aria by Schubert so often used at funerals, but an aria that has become well known in its own right since it was first recorded in 1972. Interestingly its origins are controversial.  Whereas it is often attributed to Guilo Caccini (c.1550), an early Baroque composer from Italy, some argue it was written by Vladimir Vavilov (c.1970), an unknown twentieth century Russian composer. Regardless of its origins, this simple piece is of great beauty; it is written in g minor, a key its shares with the melancholic aria “Dido’s Lament” by Henry Purcell (to be added to this site later). The singer, Nina Solodovnikova, is a Russian lyric soprano who is a rising opera star.  Her interpretation emphasizes the pervasive melancholic feeling of the piece rather than diction.  It almost becomes a song without words. This is especially notable when she first enters, blending with the instruments and allowing the aria to emerge softly. Her voice displays warmth and has an extraordinary dynamic range, with superb control. The setting is a fourteenth century Roman Catholic church in Pesaro, Italy.

Leonard Cohen at King's Garden, Odense, Denmark, August 17, 2013

Melancholia & Music
Curated by 
Andrew G.M. Bulloch, MA, PhD
Professor, Department of Community Health Sciences
Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary

Miserere mei, Deus - Allegri - Tenebrae
Tenebrae Choir

Gregorio Allegri's Miserere mei, Deus Tenebrae, conducted by Nigel Short Filmed at St Bartholomew the Great, London ...

William Blake, The Lamb

Little Lamb who made thee 
Dost thou know who made thee 
Gave thee life & bid thee feed. 
By the stream & o'er the mead; 
Gave thee clothing of delight, 
Softest clothing wooly bright; 
Gave thee such a tender voice, 
Making all the vales rejoice!

Miserere mei, Deus (“Have mercy on me, O God”(Gregorio Allegri). This setting of Psalm 51 was written for the Vatican in c.1638 by the Italian composer Gregorio Allegri; it has an interesting history in which Mozart is said to have played an important role. Allegri is largely now known only for this piece, but he composed a number of liturgical and non-liturgical works. This work is composed in melancholic key of g minor (2 flats, see Ave Maria above) and consists of alternating sections of polyphony in Renaissance style and plainsong (monophonic chant). At the end of phrases there are ornamentations (embellishments) evident throughout.  These are characteristic of the Baroque rather than the Renaissance era. Two choirs are involved, Choir 1 is in 5 parts (two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass) and Choir 2 is in 4 parts (2 sopranos, alto and bass). The soprano part in the second choir (originally intended for a castrato) has an extraordinarily moving  5 bar passage (from bar 25) that starts on a high G and ascends to a high C (one of the highest notes achievable), and then descends with ornamented finish to the high G. The award-wining Tenebrae (Latin for Shadows) Choir is another example (compare Erebus Ensemble in The Lamb above) of an accomplished modern a capella group; it was founded in 2001 in England, and here shows its extraordinary ability to express emotions with clarity and power. 

Alleluia (Leonard Cohen). Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) was born in a Jewish family in Montreal and his music and poetry were influenced by Jewish theology and the Old Testament. Such influences contribute to his complex writings.  They encompass religion, mythology, poetry and song. This complexity is reflected in the text of his signature song Alleluia (1984).  It has the feeling of an incantation.  It references  King David and builds in reference to the song’s harmonic structure (“It goes like this: the fourth , the fifth……”), in the first stanza. Alleluia has been extensively analyzed. As to the meaning of the word Alleluia, this  has been attributed to Coheni: "Hallelujah is a Hebrew word which means 'Glory to the Lord.' The song explains that many kinds of Hallelujahs do exist. I say: All the perfect and broken Hallelujahs have an equal value. It's a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion."  Cohen said that it took him five years to complete the poem that was originally 80 verses long. It is written in G major (one sharp), a calm and lyrical key often used in religious music.  The melody is strangely melancholic, building and lifting, then releasing as it descends. Use of the electric organ and three background singers increases the religious aura of the piece.

Location: London 2009. 


John Tavener: The Lamb – The Erebus Ensemble [live]
directed by Tom Williams from the Clifton International Festival of Music, October 2017, at Clifton Cathedral.

The Lamb.  This setting of William Blake’s poem The Lamb was written in 1982 by John Tavener, an English composer. Tavener (not to be confused with the Renaissance composer, John Taverner) composed many religious works and was strongly influenced by both Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox traditions. The Lamb is for four-part unaccompanied choir and can be called a “anthem” i.e., it is suitable for church service. It is set in two repeated verses, the first verse has a twentieth century feeling and features some penetrating dissonances between the altos and sopranos. The second verse uses the same melody as the first, but it is in in four parts and seems to belong to the Renaissance. This verse is in the Aeolian mode that is a natural minor scale (modes are early scales that originated in Ancient Greece). The acapella (i.e., unaccompanied)  choir, The Erebus Ensemble, was formed in 2012, and exhibit here their talent for performing with a rich mesmerizing style with clear diction. This music was featured in the movie The Great Beauty that won the Best Foreign language film (director by Paolo Sorrentino) in the Oscar’s of 2013. This setting for The Lamb is a twentieth century Roman Catholic cathedral located in the Clifton area of Bristol, England

Oh Danny Boy

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling

From glen to glen, and down the mountain side

The summer's gone, and all the flowers are dying

'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer's in the meadow

Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow

'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow

Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, when all the flowers are dying

And I am dead, as dead I well may be

You'll come and find the place where I am lying

And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me.

And I shall hear, tho' soft you tread above me

And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be

If you'll not fail to tell me that you love me

I'll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.

I'll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did—well, really—what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah