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Birtwistle and Dürer: Melancholy and The Shadow of Night

(September 2003)

Birtwistle and Dürer: The Shadow of Night

On Melancholy and the Humour of the Night
by Patrick Wright



Harrison Birtwistle’s engagement with the idea of Melancholy and the ‘humour of the night’ is closely informed by Dürer’s engraving, Melencolia I (1514). In this image, which has preoccupied Birtwistle for several decades, an angel sits in the midst of a construction site, surrounded by scattered hammers, planes and geometrical devices, wearing a dark and withdrawn countenance while Saturn radiates nocturnal light over the ocean behind. The engraving finds many different ways of suggesting a mysteriously balanced stillness achieved between opposites. Dürer’s angel is winged and yet also immobile and heavy. The bell is silent, and the tools are at rest. There is an hourglass with equal amounts of spent and unspent sand. On the same wall hangs a ‘magic square’ of numbers arranged in rows of four, which always add up to 34, whether they are counted vertically, horizontally or diagonally. Every detail in this mysterious and enigmatic engraving suggests an arcane cosmological meaning. As diverse scholars have demonstrated, Dürer’s Melancholy involves considerably more than the obsessive nocturnal ruminations of the insomniac, or a depressed state of mind in which a sense of mortality presses in and all endeavour seems futile.

The modern reinterpretation of Melencolia I was initiated by the German art historian Erwin Panofsky, whose work on Dürer and Melancholy was first published in 1923. In early medieval doctrine, Melancholy was one of the four humours, alongside the sanguine, the choleric and the phlegmatic. It was associated with black bile, the earth, with its qualities of cold and dry, and it was linked to the planet Saturn. The association with Saturn may have been established by Arab writers in the 9th century, but Panofsky and his colleagues traced other roots of this doctrine back to ancient Greece, citing both the concept of number espoused by Pythagoras, and the unity of macrocosm and microcosm established by Empedocles. In its early expression, Melancholy was both a temperament and an illness - associated with fear, withdrawal, depression and madness.

For Panofsky and his colleagues, many details of Dürer’s engraving engage this inherited imagery of Melancholy - the drooped head of the angel, her ‘black face’ or ‘shadowed countenance’, the purse and keys, even the clenched fist, which had for long associated Melancholy with avarice. Other details work against these Saturnine qualities. The wreath around the angel’s brow may conventionally have served as a sign of intellectual powers but, being made of water parsley and watercress, it also counteracts the dryness of the melancholy temperament. So too does the ‘magic square’ of numbers mounted beside the bell, perhaps intended as talisman to engage the healing influence of Jupiter.

Yet Dürer’s engraving also seems to raise Melancholy from its conventional position as the lowest of the four humours, to the highest. It shows Melancholy as the humour of the great and prophetic. No longer ‘inert depression’ or mere idleness, Melancholy becomes a ‘unique and divine gift’, an inspiring quality of Genius, and the proper predisposition of intellectual work.

Panofsky finds testimony to this conception in the geometrical elements that are so strongly present in Melencolia I, with its ladder and compass, its sphere and stone octahedron. ‘Geometria’ had long symbolized the ‘allegorised ideal of a creative mental faculty’ but Dürer combines this with the image of melancholy as a destructive state of mind. Dürer was bold enough to ‘bring down’ timeless knowledge into ‘the sphere of human striving and failure’ and, inversely, to ‘raise the animal heaviness of a "sad, earthy" temperament to the height of a struggle with intellectual problems’. He has merged two different worlds of thought and feeling, and as a consequence, ‘Geometria’s workshop has changed from a cosmos of clearly ranged and purposefully employed tools into a chaos of unused things’.

Panofsky suggested that Melencolia I is based on a passage from Henry Cornelius Agrippa’s De occulta philosophica, and this idea was further developed by Frances Yates, in her book The Occult Philosophy in The Elizabethan Age (1979). Yates looks at the sleeping and half-starved dog in Melencolia I and reads it as a sign that the body is under firm control - it represents the ‘starved dog of the senses’. She remarks that Dürer’s ladder leads up to Heaven, and certainly not just to the top of a half-made building. Far from being in a state of failure or glowering inertia, Dürer’s angel is in a deep visionary trance that is guaranteed against demonic intervention by angelic interference, and linked to the hermetic tradition of alchemy and the Christian Cabala as propounded by Agrippa.

If melancholy was a characteristic condition of the 16th and seventeenth century, it has since given way to more recent forms: the ‘ennui’ that was so characteristic of revolutionary France, the ‘dejection’ of 19th century romanticism, the ‘anomie’ that is so often associated, rightly or wrongly with the modern city and its suburbs.

Yet Dürer’s angel would remain a various and remarkably persistent inspiration through the twentieth century. Shortly after the First World War, in the desolate and, for much of Europe, starving spring of 1919, Melencolia I appeared on the front of a large bulletin entitled ‘Towards Peace and Freedom’, published to accompany the Women’s International Congress, held in Zurich that May. This was an initiative of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, whose members in various countries had refused national polarizations and pressed for a negotiated settlement throughout the war. Here, Dürer’s static angel became a suffragist emblem of post-war misery and exhaustion. Reproduced as a sombre comment on the broken condition of post-war Europe, Melencolia I also carried emancipatory promise, suggested by lines quoted alongside from Swinburne’s republican poem ‘A Years Burden - 1870’:

The woundless and invisible thought that goes
Free throughout time as north and south wind blows,
Far throughout space as east and west sea flows,
And all dark things before it are made bright.


As Simone de Beauvoir reveals in the Prime of Life, Jean-Paul Sartre chose Melancholia as the title for the novel he eventually published as La Nausée (Nausea) in 1938. This book, which was to be hugely influential as one of the founding texts of Existentialism, retains many traces of Sartre’s meditation on Dürer’s image: the angel Melencolia giving way to the narrator Antoine Roqúentin, who nevertheless remains inclined to meditations on blackness, withdrawal (‘I am alone in the midst of these happy, reasonable faces…’) and even the heaviness with which a seated soul may press down upon a bench.

Dürer’s angel is further reinterpreted in Gunther Grass’ novel, From the Diary of a Snail. Here, Melencolia is folded into an account of the 1969 general election in West Germany. Grass campaigned for Willy Brandt’s Social Democratic Party, traveling through West Germany and giving more than a hundred speeches. In the early days of that campaign, Grass received an invitation to present a lecture as part of Nuremberg’s celebrations of ‘Dürer Year’ in 1971. So he took a postcard of Melencolia I out on the campaign trail, and found that ‘between Melancholy and Social Democracy there are sometimes desperately funny short circuits.’ There is, without doubt, a touch of melancholy in the snail of the title, first seen crawling across the floor of the East Prussia Hall as the election result is counted. Grass adopts this snail as an ironic symbol of ‘Progress’: here presented as a slow, sticky business of inching forward while a great weight of history pulls from behind - a constant struggle against the memory of Nazism and ‘the dead weight of things as they are.’ As Grass writes, ‘In the midst of progress we find ourselves standing still. The excavated future. The mysticism of statistics, Gothically ornate ignition keys. Automobiles wrapped around trees.’

Far from being just a ‘suspicious eccentricity’, Grass declares Melencolia to be a ‘social state of mind’ to be found in various forms of modern life, from student depression to the boredom of the ‘suburban widow’. In the factory, Melancholy becomes ‘a semi-political dejection’ and ‘the class privilege of the wage earner.’ Indeed, Dürer’s angel becomes the consort of political utopianism. Especially on the fringes of the political spectrum Grass finds people taking ‘desperately extreme attitudes of resignation or euphoria. Daily flights into utopia found their counterpart in relapses into melancholic withdrawal’. He imagines that one day ‘utopia and melancholia will come to coincide: an age without conflict will dawn, perpetually busy - and without consciousness’.

Grass also sees Dürer’s angel ‘barging in’ to the world of ‘touristically organised leisure’, where ‘Touristica’ becomes her other self: ‘Herded in groups at attractive prices by our leading agencies to sunny beaches, to fields of educational ruins, to the Piazza San Marcos of the world, wherever the sightseeing conveyor belt chooses to operate, Touristica as Melencolia snaps her pictures, until suddenly, or gradually, the click of the shutter release, the idiotic mechanism of the exposure meter, and the foretaste of ridiculous results rise to consciousness. Now she’s sitting slumped amid picturesque scenes. Exhausted, fed up, she refuses to absorb any more…’

* * *

Grass’s presentation of Melancholy as ‘stasis in Progress’ informed Birtwistle’s own composition Melencolia I, written in 1976 for the clarinettist Alan Hacker, who had been stricken by illness, and was becoming paraplegic - a fact that greatly accentuated the thought of Dürer’s immobile angel. Dürer’s image is also reflected in the orchestration of that composition: an engraving must evoke its world entirely in black and white, and Birtwistle suggests a comparably stark opposition with his use of clarinet and strings.

He knows too about the melancholy that attends the passage of historical time. Birtwistle has always had an acute sense of the relic or remnant, be it an ancient musical motif of the sort that he has often incorporated into his compositions, or an ancient ruin or building such as feature among the metaphors he employs when talking about his compositions. It may be the barrows, hillforts and other fragmentary remnants of prehistory that are still to be found in the English landscape, or a medieval church or cathedral, that has endured long after the disintegration of the religious outlook of its creators.

Shortly after completing The Shadow of Night, Birtwistle visited Santiago de Compostella, in Galicia near the west coast of Spain, and looked with particular interest at an ancient marble column that stands inside the entrance to the cathedral. Over many centuries, this column, which is carved as a tree of Jesse, has been clasped by so many millions of pilgrims, that the shape of a hand with spread fingers has been worn deep into the stone. To this day, people queue up to insert their own hands into this hollow, thereby participating, as the Dutch poet and novelist Cees Nooteboom has observed (in Roads to Santiago, a book that helped motivate Birtwistle’s visit), in ‘a collective work of art’ that has made an idea ‘visible in matter’.

As Birtwistle says of Dürer and the interpretations of Panofsky and Frances Yates, ‘that’s how I came into it. But into a particular mode, an English mode’ - and one that he suggests may be the opposite of the melancholy expression that comes through in Mahler. ‘It’s not a mood’, he suggests, so much as ‘a kind of geometric night’. Together with the hermetic philosophy of Agrippa, the idea of melancholy was taken up by English Elizabethans in the late sixteenth century: its advocates included the poets Edmund Spenser, George Chapman, Walter Raleigh and other members of the so called ‘School of Night’. Indeed, The Shadow of Night takes its title from a long poem by George Chapman: a work, so the historian Frances Yates has argued, that was written both as a defence of the occult philosophy condemned by Christopher Marlowe in Doctor Faustus, and as a celebration of the ‘inspired Melancholy’ that was its practitioners’ preferred spiritual condition. Yet that Elizabethan Melancholy also became music in the lute songs of John Dowland: ‘From Silent Night’, ‘ I saw my lady weep’, and, the song from which Birtwistle quotes his opening phrase, ‘In Darkness Let Me Dwell’:

In darkness let me dwell, the ground shall Sorrow be;
The roof Despair, to bar all cheerful light from me;
The walls of marble black, that moistened still shall weep;
My music hellish jarring sounds to banish friendly sleep.
Thus, wedded to my woes and bedded to my tomb,
O let me living die, till death do come.


For Birtwistle, Dowland’s melancholy songs represent ‘an expression and tempo of music that doesn’t really exist anywhere else’, and which, while it may have connections with earlier religious song, really comes into its own in secular music. It is a lyric voice, which is primarily monodic and isolated from polyphony. There may be traces of this cadence in Henry Purcell, in ‘Dido’s Lament’, say; and a similar Melancholy spirit seems to pervade the song of Amiens and Jaques in Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’. Indeed, when he set out to compose music for Jaques, while working as music director at the National Theatre in London, Birtwistle found that his words fitted Dowland’s music almost exactly.

Birtwistle opens The Shadow of Night by sounding the first three notes of Dowland’s ‘In Darkness Let Me Dwell’. This phrase, which moves up a semitone and then down, is revisited throughout the composition: repeated, but also used to build a series of musical structures that serve to sustain the work’s linear progression. Birtwistle describes the new work as a companion piece to Earth Dances, recorded by the Cleveland Orchestra in 19?? Yet it stands to Earth Dances’ as negative to positive. The latter is overtly rhythmical, whereas The Shadow of Night has a more expressive, lyrical quality. As Birtwistle describes the difference, Earth Dances is ‘quite Cubist’ with new structures emerging before others have been completed, whereas The Shadow of Night is like a series of clouds passing slowly, one after the other, across the face of the moon. Like Dowland’s melancholy songs, it is monodic: a nocturne in which variety is used primarily to sustain a progression that is itself not various. And that preoccupation with a form of continuity that is both linear and capable of circling back on itself may, as Birtwistle remarks, also have something to do with insomnia.

© 2003, Patrick Wright
Reproduction of this text is only possible by permission of the author.
A version of this article first appeared in the programme to the Cleveland Orchestra's 2001 world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle's The Shadow of Night, which receives its UK premiere at the BBC Proms on 12 September 2003

Books cited:
Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion and Art, (1964).
Frances A. Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (1979)
Gunther Grass, From the Diary of a Snail (1974)
Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (1938)
Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life (1960)
Cees Nooteboom, Roads to Santiago (1997)


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