Paul Johnson

A cure for melancholy: Parmigianino, Dickens, Schubert

A cure for melancholy: Parmigianino, Dickens, Schubert

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My grandfather used to say, ‘Learn to like art, music and literature deeply and passionately. They will be your friends when things are bad.’ It is true: at this time of year, when days are short and dark, and one hardly dares to open the newspapers, I turn, not vainly either, to the great creators of the past for distraction, solace and help. I sit in my library, while the rain beats down on the windowpanes at either side, and the garden is so vaporous I can scarcely see the winter-flowering prunus bravely setting out her pink blossoms, and I fill my mind with the better things of long ago. I have been studying Parmigianino, a tiny man (as his name implies), a perfectionist, one of the greatest draughtsmen who ever lived, who ended his brief life, aged 37, virtually on the run from the fierce clerics of the Parma church Santa Maria della Steccato. They had paid him handsomely for work he had hovered over for years without completing. When he was young and fresh and hopeful, he had painted, as a gift for Pope Clement VII, to ingratiate himself, an astonishing tour de force, ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, showing him as a beautiful, beardless 20-year-old. It is now one of the glories of the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum.

It is fun to get to know a painter so well that you recognise his models when they pop up incongruously. His best-known work is the ‘Madonna of the Long Neck’, in the Uffizi, featuring some of his regulars. The enchanting girl on the Virgin’s left he used again, as Anthea, in the solemn painting now in Naples, and a wicked boy just below her makes a characteristic appearance between the lubricious legs of Cupid in another Vienna masterpiece, this time as a putto, where he is torturing another putto and making him scream. Vasari says the painter ended up in a bad way, as a late self-portrait drawing suggests, and that he practised alchemy, the poisonous fumes from his furnace ending his life. I’m not sure I believe this, and I am looking forward to David Ekserdjian’s definitive life, due this summer, to end the mystery. Oddly enough, if you are feeling low about the awfulness of the contemporary world, reading about a 16th-century melancholic does not intensify your depression, but relieves it. Why? Is it not what Freud calls transference? I notice that the little man’s last drawings are as good as ever — even better, perhaps — thus setting a good example to all us sad people. As Dylan Thomas said, we should ‘not go gentle’ but ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’.

That was certainly Charles Dickens’s view. I have been reading the massive dozen volumes of the Pilgrim edition of his letters which, with their countless long footnotes, constitute a mine of information about those times. You can dig endlessly into it, bringing back to the surface heaped wagon-loads of rich material. What an amazing fellow Dickens was! That he should behave with such cruelty to his wife after she bore him ten children — in effect separating her from them by kicking her out of their home, simply because he found her irritating — remains an extraordinary mystery, never to be solved, I suspect.

He strove to fight off the melancholy created by his inhibitions and emotional failures in bursts of frenzied activity. He wrote exceptionally demanding novels, always to the utmost of his ability, while running a complex and sophisticated magazine against fierce competition and to the highest possible standards. His hopeless parents, and his even more hopeless or rascally brothers, gave him endless trouble and put him to constant expense. His daughters were good girls, but his many sons, with one exception, turned out badly and gave him perpetual worry, punctuated by sheer anguish. He ran a troublesome home for unfortunate young women. He was surrounded by shabby-genteel friends demanding help, or dissipated old cronies who died in debt leaving destitute widows and young children. He was always organising whip-rounds or speaking at charitable dinners or conducting immensely elaborate stage performances which raised staggering sums of money for good causes. He gave hundreds of readings for charity long before he read on his own account — the exhausting activity which killed him.

Dickens was always in charge of everything, rarely delegated, had no secretary and wrote all his countless letters (well over 14,000 have been printed and the total must have been nearer 30,000) in his own hand, often by return of post. He supervised servants, workmen, gardeners, journalists, printers, builders, illustrators, solicitors, agents, caterers and contributors in the smallest details, and at the same time poured out a flood of advice and encouragement to the armies of people who demanded his help. Many of his letters, written in the middle of his own powerful distresses and the implacable demands of work, exude jokes and fun. His courage was bottomless, and almost makes one forgive the crushing of his poor wife. What I myself find, in reading his letters, and around them in other sources, is that his courage is catching and helps one to struggle on — that in the swirling maelstrom of Dickens’s activities one finds delight and stimulation, which pushes back the darkness.

A third creative genius who fought sadness (and ill health) by revving up his genius to the highest pitch was Franz Schubert, dead in his early thirties, leaving behind him heartbroken friends to whom he gave all that was in him — an immense treasure. A Danish friend of mine, passionately devoted to music, has a bounteous habit, whenever he finds a recording which particularly delights him, of sending me a copy. The other day, at a low point, I rediscovered one of these choice gifts of his. It is a reissue, using new technology, of a recording of Schubert’s B-flat major Piano Trio, D. 898. The original recording was made in the Kingsway Hall in the summer of 1926, the year of the General Strike, and two years before I was born. It is amazing to think that we can thus enjoy a performance from a different age, three quarters of a century ago. And what a performance! The artistes are Alfred Cortot, the great French interpreter of Chopin, his friend the violinist Jacques Thibaud, and Pablo Casals.

This famous trio of musicians, each a master of rare gifts, yet without a trace of the arrogance and jealousy which so often mar great performers, first came together in 1905, I think, and by the time this recording was made had played together — not continuously but as often as they could manage it in the middle of busy careers as soloists and conductors — for a quarter of a century, in a pure spirit of friendship, brought together by a love of the very best of chamber music and a passionate wish to play it together. All this comes across in this miraculous recording. So, of course, does Schubert’s wonderful harmonic and melodic poetry. He composed this masterpiece in 1828, his last full year of life, in which with concentrated courage he fought against sickness and despair by writing music of pure and penetrating magic. I think this trio had its first performance at the very last of the Schubertiads, the gatherings of friends who shared with him his personal faith in the healing power of sound. As I listened, spellbound, to this exceptional record, I felt a monumental lifting of spirit, and profound gratitude to the genius who made it possible.