Mental health in the arts: Suicide in song

Mental health, developmental, and other issues are part of the human experience–and as such, have always been subjects of exploration by artists, writers, composers, playwrights, dancers, and anyone else creating art. In these “Mental Health in the Arts” posts, I hope to explore the issues behind the art, not to provide a diagnosis or case study, but to enrich our understanding of the human condition. Even borne out of pain and suffering, the arts, after all, exist to express the many facets of what it means to be human.


If you’ve never heard it before, run to (well, log onto ) iTunes and download Franz Schubert’s Die Schoene Muellerin. Find some translations of the German text as well. This cycle is a great introduction to lieder, or Romantic song cycles. Sounds boring and prissy, but I promise you they’re not.

Die Schoene Muellerin is an early set of lieder, published in 1823, for one voice (usually male) and piano. The poems are set to individual songs that form a cohesive storyline: A timid young man finds work at a mill, where the beautiful miller’s daughter beguiles and eventually rejects him in favor of the manly hunter. Devastated, the man drowns himself in the brook that originally led him to the miller’s daughter. The text and music follow the young man’s descent into confusion, depression, and eventually, suicide.

The whole cycle is 20 songs long and this isn’t a musicology journal, so here are a few highlights. Song 1, “Wandern” (“Wandering”) introduces us to the miller, who is happily wandering across the countryside in search of work. It’s folksy, and we can hear the motion of the mill’s wheels and the miller’s walking in the piano part. We meet the brook in song 2, “Wohin?” (“Where to?”), and this time, we can hear the motion of the brook in the piano part. The brook is a constant symbol in the song cycle and the only entity the miller directly addresses–it’s more a reflection of the miller himself. As the cycle progresses, the miller falls in love with the beautiful mill owner’s daughter, who hardly notices him. It doesn’t help that the miller is too shy to speak to her, and instead pines remotely. He finally gives her a gift of a green ribbon. Unfortunately, green also symbolizes the virile hunter, who wins the miller maid’s heart. Unlike the lovelorn miller, the hunter’s music is full of action and motion (check out song 14, “Der Jaeger”–“The Hunter”). As quickly as the miller’s hopes are raised in song 16, “Die liebe Farbe” (The Favorite Color), they are dashed in the very next song, “Die boese Farbe” (“The Evil Color”), as the miller realizes that the hunter has won out.

The last three songs deal most directly with the miller’s death. In song 18, “Trockne Blumen” (“Dry Flowers”), the miller contemplates what will happen if he kills himself: the miller maid will pass his grave in the spring and realize what she has missed. As the miller’s love transcends even death, flowers–symbols of his love for her–will once again spring up on his grave. The miller has a conversation with the brook in song 19, “Der Mueller und der Bach” (“The Miller and the Brook”) in which he debates killing himself, finding his answer in the last stanza. He will find peace in the cool water of the brook, and asks the water to shelter him by singing on. Song 20, “Der Baches Wiegenlied,” is sung by the brook. “Wiegenlied” means “lullaby” in German. The brook says goodbye to the miller and promises to protect him from the sadnesses in his life, leading him to rest and safety.

Die Schoene Muellerin is a very intimate piece. The singer becomes the miller, and we can witness his most private thoughts and emotions. In fact, that’s all we witness, as the miller rarely interacts with anyone else. At the same time, I can’t help but think that the emotions contained in the piece have somehow been sanitized for polite society. Lieder were written for smaller gatherings in certain circles of society. Suicide for drama’s sake was acceptable, and Die Schoene Muellerin capitalized on the romantic, melodramatic notion of dying over lost love. The music is pleasant, sweet, and well-contained, hinting at the miller’s troubles through symbolism and musical structures like key relationships between songs. You would have to be really tuned in to understand the miller’s internal torture, since emotions just weren’t discussed openly.

Fast-forward 178 years to 2001, which is when Ben Folds released Rockin’ the Suburbs, and with it, a gem called “Carrying Cathy.” Again, run to iTunes to download this, and this time, have some tissues nearby. This song is devastating. (True story: I had to listen to it twice for this post, and cried twice. I really hope you enjoyed this post.)

Unlike Die Schoene Muellerin, “Carrying Cathy” is told from the point of view of an outsider, a suicide survivor coping with the aftermath of his friend’s suicide. Cathy appears to be depressed, crying while staring out of her window. The narrator admits that he “was over his head,” and “tried to hang on as she sank into the dark.” Taking on a rather systemic approach, the narrator states that “There was always someone carrying Cathy,” suggesting that the more depressed she got, the harder everyone around her tried to keep her afloat. When the narrator reaches exhaustion and can’t help her, the system breaks down and Cathy makes a tragic jump out of that same window. The system of her dependency resumes after death, however, as her family carries her casket to her grave and someone remarks that this was how it always was.

The song itself is structured to reflect the story, in what we musicologists would call a modified strophic form–meaning, it’s mostly broken into verses and refrains, but Mr. Folds monkeyed around with the form in the middle. This occurs at the point in which the system breaks down, the narrator stating “We gave you everything/You could have been anything/But to imagine a fall/With no one at all to catch you/There’d always been someone.” The music changes too, swelling dramatically with the eerie theremin theme entering. The system returns with Cathy’s funeral, and with it, the strophic structure.

“Carrying Cathy” shows a more contemporary view of suicide than Die Schoene Muellerin, as we deal with the narrator’s feelings surrounding his friend’s death. This is as unromantic as Muellerin is romantic–there is no brook to welcome and comfort Cathy. Instead, we witness darkness, coldness, and rain. Ben Folds also emphasizes interdependency, in contrast to the highly individualistic point of view in Schubert’s piece. The pain of suicide has never changed, but our views on it certainly have changed, which is why we tend to view Schubert’s piece as unrealistic and overly wrought. However, the pain–no matter how politely encoded–was still just as tangible and valid in the 1800s as it is today.

How do you feel about the way suicide is portrayed in Die Schoene Muellerin compared to “Carrying Cathy?”

Do you have any music, poetry, dance, visual art, or otherwise that you would like to see featured here?

Photo source.


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