I was recently asked to give a talk about music and affect/emotion for a critical theory group here at the University of Illinois, and I took the opportunity to riff a little about a thing that I had noticed a bit back, but can’t really think of a way to make enough out of to write a full paper on.
It’s this: there are things in Morrissey’s songwriting that seem to present melancholy in ways that I think would be intelligible to 18th century German audiences/musicians in the know about their own affect theory. Check out the Smiths’ song “This Charming Man,” for instance, and Georg Philippe Telemann’s recorder concerto in C-Maj, third movement, Adagio (sorry, no free online version to link to). The Telemann is paradigmatic melancholy–it’s an adagio, in minor, makes extensive use of dissonance, especially appogiaturas, is composed principally of small intervals and lots of slurred articulations. “This Charming Man” is different in a number of ways (not least that the guitar, bass, and drum accompaniment is NOT melancholy–it’s peppy, reminiscent to me of bright Afro-pop from the time); but if you listen just to Morrissey’s vocal line, it’s really similar to the Telemann–it’s minor-mode-inflected, uses mostly small intervals, some slurred, and makes clear use of dissonant suspensions, particualrly “sigh” figures. And moreover, it’s paradigmatic Morrissey. Loads of his melodies sound really similar to this one. (Incidentally, I’m not sure I’d say that the lyrics are melancholy, though there’s a case to be made, probably). The big difference as I see it is that Telemann was composing within a tradition in which the representation of emotion in music was understood to be explicitly conventional, and Morrissey has composed within a tradition in which convention (though used) is mystified.
I’m wavering about what to make of this. It seems hard to imagine that Morrissey was aware of 18th c. German affect theory at the time he wrote songs for the Smiths; and in any case it seems so unlikely that he would have wanted to emulate that approach, if only because of its explicitly conventional orientation. So far my impression is that on the one hand, both are really writing within one mega-tradition–Tonal music in Modern Europe; and on the other hand, there are some things about the aspects of both pieces that sound melancholy that are iconic of the somatic experience of melancholy (i.e., “sigh” figures are somehow synaesthetically LIKE sighing). This second bit points in directions relating to music cognition that I really am unqualified to write about right now, but that I can’t wait to start reading up on.