Thought of the Week: Can’t a Guy Cry?

Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 9.58.00 PM“I think I’m an 80s man.”

“How do you figure?”

“Last night I cried in bed. How’s that?”

“Were you with a woman?”

“I was alone – why do you think I cried?”

“Sounds like an 80s man to me.”

Lethal Weapon, 1987

Guys cry, okay? It happens. This comes to mind because I cried last night. Poor me.

Going into this post I started digging into the physiological reasons for crying, and after a brief exploration decided that I’d be crying again if I spent much more time on it. Turns out, there’s no real consensus on why people cry. Or at least, cry emotionally. Crying out of pain is understood well enough, as well as histaminic reactions, but no one’s really sure what the point is of crying when you’re upset. Multiple theories abound, from basic sympathetic pain reflexes to something to do with smoke getting in the eyes of ancient humans when they burned dead bodies. I can’t say I’m entirely convinced by any of them, but the fact remains that guys cry. Apparently German guys cry between 6 to 17 times a year (German ladies cry up to 60 times a year – those bastard German men).

And as Jack Thibeau would have us know, it’s perfectly okay for us guys to cry, especially when we’re lonely. We get to cry when a great tragedy occurs, or if our hamster dies, or if the Mets win the…whatever it is the Mets might win if they won it. Ladies, however, are apparently allowed to cry more often, for longer, and more dramatically! Ladies cry when they feel insecure, or can’t solve some big problem, whereas us dudes cry when our relationships fail. And stuff.

Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 10.31.28 PMMy, all this research seems to make a lot of sense. By deduction, I’m a big girl. I cry often. I cry for great, long periods of time. I cry dramatically, like Gary Oldman. And it drives my wife absolutely insane. I have complete, utter meltdowns. Hours of inconsolable bawling, incapacitated and catatonic, and try as I might, I can’t stop. It’s not stubbed toe or dead hamster crying – it’s full-on end-of-the-world-and-I-never-got-to-watch-the-last-episode-of-Lost psychotic sobbing.

I’m not always like this. It tends to happen when I’m feeling beaten, like everything’s been going wrong and I’m worthless waste of air, and to top it all off I didn’t rinse the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher and now they’re all covered in food crud. That kind of frame of mind. Am I alone in this, or would you cry at that point as well?

In fact, I suppose what I’m really driving at is that, given a scenario that is very stressful and upsetting, is it okay to cry like a baby for a bit? And is it worse for a guy to do so than a lady? Am I a woman trapped in a man’s body, or just an infantile sack of melodrama that just needs to grow a pair?

When’s the last time you properly sat down and wailed until your head exploded?

Tales of Despair: The Color and the Key of Despair

What mood do you see?

There are certain things that ring so of despair that they are instantly recognizable. In life there are such things — death, sadness, old men crying. In art also, there exists an equal dogma of darkness (even the term darkness serves as such an example). The darker of colors — black, blue, crimson — these are colors of despair. They are the colors of things that are frightening — the black of night, the unfathomable depths of the ocean, the terrifying heat of flame, and the letting of blood.

These colors form a great part of our perception of misery and sadness. Winston Churchill famously referred to depression as his “black dog”. Yet even the shading of these colors is significant; when we describe someone as being “blue”, we rarely imagine the pale, soothing blue of a spring sky. Bright red is a color of excitement and joy; deeper tones convey heat and flame and blood.

I think this man might be useful to me – if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now – it is such a relief. All the colours come back into the picture.

— Winston Churchill, 1911

And these tones are carried through into music. Ignoring synesthesia, it isn’t uncommon to think of a song or piece as carrying a particular color. These visual representations of key vary from person to person; if you were to ask any two musicians, you would likely get two completely different descriptions.

My personal key-color relationships. Even ignoring the colors, notice that the minor keys are universally darker than the major ones.

Having said that, there are certain keys that, almost universally represent sadness, anger and despair. As a starting point, these keys are naturally minor. The bright, exuberant major keys — the clean, purity of C major or the homeliness and warmth of E-flat major — rarely suggest any aspect of darkness. The inherent sad quality of the minor key, however, is inextricable.

The falling of tears.

Part of this is in the psychological impact of the falling semitone; to turn major into minor, the third key of the scale falls by one semitone. The very nature of falling and descent is linked to death (going underground) and sadness (the falling of tears). One of the most heart-wrenching progressions is the fall from the sixth note of a minor scale to the fifth (especially if the root note remains in the bass). A wonderful example of this is the opening of Sotto Vento by Ludovico Einaudi.

However, quite apart from this inherent quality of the minor keys, there is a particular key (or closely related keys) that has throughout the history of western music been used to express the deepest pathos and despair. Countless works have been based on this key, and they are without exception some of the most beautiful, and tragic, pieces of music ever written.

I speak, of course, of B minor (the key that, for me, is represented by the deepest black). There is likely a reason for this; C major, the standard and most oft used key, is above this by one semitone. The shift, the fall from this key of happiness, represents a profound shift from light to dark.

Violin part from the first edition of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

What’s interesting, however, is that this history of this key is not so straightforward. Though from the 1800s onwards B minor because a de facto standard for sadness, it was prior to this rarely used. Instead, the tonally slightly higher key of C minor was used instead. Mozart wrote a beautiful mass in C minor (despite rarely using minor keys in general); one of his best piano concertos is the twenty-fourth in C minor. Later, Beethoven used this key for one of the most famous and furious of compositions: the raging fifth symphony in C minor. He was attracted to this key several times further: his eighth piano sonata, the Pathétique; the third piano concerto (clearly and heavily influenced by Mozart’s own piano concerto in the same key), and the thirty-second piano sonata (one of the last pieces he ever wrote).

The tragedy of Swan Lake.

Yet something happened in the early nineteenth century that changed this, and suddenly the key of despair dropped a semitone. We began to see works such as Schubert‘s eighth symphony, Chopin‘s third piano sonata, Liszt’s only piano sonata and the wonderful Totentanz, and Brahms’ chamber works (one of the most delicate and beautiful, the first piano trio in B, is in fact half in B minor). And then there was Tchaikovsky. B minor was an epic favorite of this troubled composer, being the home key of his first piano concerto, the beautiful Swan Lake, the furious passages of the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, and of course the intensely tragic and heartbreaking sixth symphony, the Pathétique.

Though at first it might appear that there are therefore two keys of darkness, and that the choice of key is down to the individual perception of the composer, it turns out not to be so simple. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was no set tonal standard, meaning that different countries, and indeed different orchestras, would have their own definitions of standard concert tonality. In most cases, of course, the tonalities were similar – often differing by one semitone.

And to this day, as western tonalities became standardized (a practice that was only formalized in the 1950s), the key of B minor has assumed reign as the common standard for darkness, and despair.

Tales of Despair: The Tragedy of the Symphony “Pathétique”


This is the first post of what I hope will become an ongoing series on the nature of despair. What I envisage is to introduce a work of art – be it imagery, poetry, music, film or novel – that was created from the darkest places of the soul. Darkness and despair have been a part of my life since my early teens, and as I have grown accustomed to it, and rediscovered joy in the midst of it, I have become inextricably marked by depression, and to this day there is nothing in the world so comforting as a warm, dark corner where no one can see me, My Dying Bride playing in the background, and a glass of wine reflecting the candlelight.

Being a musician and composer by training, many of these tales are likely to revolve around songs, symphonies and albums. However, I hope to reach out to further art forms, and discover among the canon of literature, film and imagery endless tales of despair.

The Tragedy of the Symphony Pathétique

There is in my mind no more fitting work of art more wrought with despair than Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, popularly known as the Pathétique (in Russian, Patetičeskaja). This is a piece of music that passes through a sea of emotions of an intensity beyond anything I have heard or seen in my life. From the moodiness of the opening to the fury of the first movement’s climax, the calm sadness of the lilted waltz to the dizzying madness of the third movement, and ultimately the chilling, profoundly bleak finale, in fifty minutes this symphony takes the listener through a world of thought and a lifetime of tragedy.

The symphony’s name derives from the Russian word for passion, not pity, and it is a just name. The deep and overwhelming sadness of this music, however, is how closely it ties to Tchaikovsky’s turbulent personal life. Six days after its world première, Tchaikovsky died. He claimed to his brother that the symphony was steeped in meaning, but he would not reveal the music’s subject to anyone. Some have since said that it was his final death letter.

Tchaikovsky’s own life was a mirror for this tragedy. His sorrows began with the death of his mother at the age of fourteen, and from that day onwards he succumbed to a cloud of depression that even the recognition he eventually garnered could not completely break him free of. His life was a tale of abandonment, despair and frustration; Though homosexual, the social convictions of Victorian Russia prevented him not only from being open about this, but even from acknowledging it in his own mind. He suffered two affairs, both of which ended with the woman he cared for leaving him. He did eventually marry, but they lived together for less than two months, and she eventually bore children from another man.

Even the one light of hope – his patron, Nadezhda, with whom he corresponded for thirteen years in over a thousand letters – ceased communication with him in 1890, and he remained hurt, bitter and bewildered over this for the remaining three years of his life.

Tchaikovsky died in 1983 by his own hand. Perhaps he had become overwhelmed by the depth of despair into which his life had sunk; perhaps he could no longer bear the terrible conflict of his sexuality, which culminated in an attempted affair with his own nephew. On the night of the première of the sixth symphony, Tchaikovsky drank a glass of unboiled water, contracted cholera, and died six days later.

The terrible pain, sadness and despair is overwhelmingly prevalent in this symphony. Before his death, Tchaikovsky confided to his brother that the symphony was full of a deeper meaning, but would not say what it was. After he died, his brother realized he had been speaking of his own death – his final symphony, a monument to tragedy, was his suicide note. A parallel for his own life – childhood sadness, angst and fear at odds with the fervor and passion of creativity. Tchaikovsky destroyed more manuscripts than he completed – the artist’s madness refusing to allow him to ever be content with his own music.

This symphony, even out of context, is a tragic and moving musical journey; always a master of emotion, the composer filled his final work with every skill he possessed, and left us thus with his greatest work being his last. When considered as the final cry of a doomed man, a testament to despair, the final, terrible notes of the finale take on the reek of death, and speak of the utter finality of the grave. Tchaikovsky knew as he wrote that this symphony would be his last, and killed himself upon its completion.