“You can’t fix yourself out of a mental health issue. You can’t wake up and say, ‘Today I’m not being depressed!’ It’s a process to get well, but there is recovery.”
When I received a request from violinist Holly Mulcahy to write about what music we might use to improve mental health as we cope with the pandemic, I focused my attention on the words she used to describe our possible emotions (“anxiety, sadness, fear, anger, manic energy, lack of motivation”) as well as her directive: “pick a single work that reflects and supports that emotion, and then pick a secondary work that alleviates that feeling just a notch up or down.”
Hmm … that was a tough one. Were the musical remedies limited to the world of classical music? How could one really choose just one emotion? Was this request adding to the already burdensome weight of isolation?
Actually, for me, it has not been all that bad. At age seventy-six, I have been contemplating cutting back anyway. What better time to assess my options for the future? I have finished writing my third book, started a fourth, become a pretty decent heart-healthy chef, and discovered all kinds of movies and tv series to keep me occupied.
But I have also spent a good deal of time in my music library pouring over scores I have performed and others that have sat on the shelves for decades. In the process, I expanded my musical world. So I put on my thinking cap and tried to envision what might be an acceptable answer to Holly’s query.
One of the most frequently asked questions of musicians, and one that we always have to dodge, is: “What is your favorite piece of music?” Of course, there is no single answer to this. Everything depends on the occasion, time of day, and general mood one is in. My retort takes the form of two responses: “Whatever piece I am conducting at the moment,” or “Anything by my wife.” The first answer works on all occasions, and the second works best when Cindy is around to hear me say it.
But I can think of one piece that applies in virtually any circumstance. I know this violates Holly’s dictum to pick one work that reflects a single emotion and a second piece to alleviate that feeling, but my choice is Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.
Because, at least in the twenty-minute suite, it contains all the emotions and sense of recovery that we need at this time. I look at things from a very American perspective, and Copland’s score has that one characteristic we all share: cautious optimism. It begins simply and quietly, then moves into a folk-like dance followed by music of unbearable tension and sorrow. After that, we get to another light-hearted dance and some good old-fashioned country fiddlin’. A short reference back to the opening music brings the slightly aggressive building-of-the-house music. Then we are taken to the mountains and the Shakers, who sing the hymn “Simple Gifts,” which is followed by a set of variations. The triumph of spirit is short-lived, as it is time to reflect on all we have seen and heard.
The coda provides one of the most beautiful and satisfying conclusions of any piece of music I know. Sparsely orchestrated, it is a prayer of Thanksgiving, which gives way, once again, to the opening of the piece. A final, indefinite chord in the strings—a C-major chord is overlayed with a G-major triad—is punctuated with the unison of three notes played on the glockenspiel and harp. Our journey is complete, but we are left with the feeling that there is still more to experience.
Isn’t that perfect for this time?
But I guess I should really deal with what Holly requested. Of course, I am going to do it in a different way. Here goes:
- Anxiety: No other choice than the variations from Bernstein’s Second Symphony (“The Age of Anxiety”)
- Sadness: Not the Barber Adagio, but instead, any movement from Górecki’s Third Symphony
- Fear: “Gnomus” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition
- Anger: The Third Movement from Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony
- Manic energy: Christopher Rouse’s The Infernal Machine
- Lack of motivation: The final movement of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony
Maybe I should program them as a suite.
Okay, now to get us out of this depressing group, I suppose that we need to find some light at the end of the tunnel, so here are a couple of excerpts that can lead the way:
- Ravel: The first part of the Daphnis and Chloé, Suite No. 2
- Strauss: The opening few minutes of An Alpine Symphony
- Ginastera: Malambo from Estancia
- Anderson: The Waltzing Cat
- Beethoven: The third movement of the String Quartet in A Minor, op. 132
- Oscar Peterson or Michel Camilo: Any up-tempo track
Quite a journey. These selections will not have the same result for everyone. If you wish to try one of the musical medications, pick carefully. They certainly work for me.
As we emerge from our isolation and come to grips with a new reality, it will be important to remember what we have all experienced and to move forward with a sense of Copland’s cautious optimism.