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Books The Organist is a memoir that probes the intimate relationship between depression and the arts

My father had “an artistic temperament.” That’s the phrase my mother used when I was a boy, baffled and even scared by his moods. Harry Abley was, indeed, an artist: a cathedral organist who gave many recitals in Canada, in his native England, and eventually in Germany. But my mother’s phrase was a euphemism. She preferred not to speak openly about a truth that at times threatened to destroy our household: My father suffered from lifelong depression.

His mental state was volatile and, to his only child, his silences could be terrifying. But his turbulence subsided when he sat down at a pipe organ and began to play. The elegant mathematics of J.S. Bach, and the sense of control my father felt while bringing great music to life, soothed him as words could never do. Music was the air in which his soul could breathe.

As I wrote The Organist, memoirs that tell my father’s story and something of my own, I realized forcibly that depression and the arts have an intimate relationship. Of course there are many cheerful and well-balanced artists – but there are countless others who battle depression every day, and whose art emerges out of personal torment.

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It has been so for thousands of years. “Why is it,” Aristotle asked, “that all those who have become eminent in poetry or the arts are clearly of an ill-tempered and melancholic temperament, and some of them to such an extent as to be affected by diseases caused by black bile?” Artists, the philosopher believed, are out of kilter with the world – yet the imbalance can somehow stimulate their acts of creation.

To keep me in kilter as I was writing, I would sometimes listen to a piano suite by the Czech composer Leos Janacek. On an Overgrown Path is a work of elusive grace, one that created an almost magical space for my own thoughts. I needed to concentrate on my work without being overwhelmed by emotions, and Janacek allowed me to do that. After my writing day was over, I would often put on a CD by Leonard Cohen. His songs – at once sophisticated and raw, ironic and tender – gave me solace in the face of troubling memories.

Harry Abley

Mark Abley

Delving into my parents’ early life in rural Wales, I found myself reading Edward Thomas, a poet who was killed in the First World War. His work reveals a loving knowledge of Britain’s natural world – blackbird song, cherry blossom, meadowsweet and so on – that matched the pastoral music my parents adored. I also kept reading poems by the American writer Elizabeth Bishop. The precision of her lines, the exactness with which she could describe the most unexpected images and events, served as a kind of model.

And, of course, I listened to organ music. How else could I write a book about a gifted musician who loved the pipe organ above all other instruments? Apart from Bach, my father’s favourite composer for organ was a French mystic named Olivier Messiaen, whose music embodies a transcendent hope. Messiaen praised the instrument in these terms: “Stained-glass windows magnify the light, one of God’s first creations, but the organ brings to the church something similar to light that yet surpasses it: the music of the invisible.”

While writing The Organist, I decided not to consult books about mental illness. In the past, I had devoured painful, revealing memoirs by the likes of William Styron and Kay Redfield Jamison, but I left those books on the shelves. Pieces of music, and certain poems, were what kept me going. They form, if you like, the emotional soundtrack from which The Organist emerged. And they were, all of them, created at enormous cost.

Messiaen battled serious depression – halfway through his career, he feared his work had reached a dead end. So did Janacek: “I didn’t value my work, just as I didn’t value what I said.” Bishop was both depressive and alcoholic. Thomas’s lonely miseries and self-doubts were so severe that his wife and children often felt unable to cope. And Cohen, despite his reputation as a Zen master, relied on anti-depression medications for much of his life. As he liked to tell the audience on his late tours: “I’ve taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Ritalin, Focalin …”

Still, Cohen would add, “cheerfulness kept breaking through.” Perhaps that’s the triumph of any successful performance or work of art: Its truth and beauty – however difficult the truth, however jagged the beauty – make the chaos behind its creation irrelevant.

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My own temperament includes a measure of anxiety. But I found that writing The Organist had a cathartic effect – it freed me from the chokehold of the past. The ability to speak the truth about my father’s depression removed its lingering power over me. Art is not the same as therapy. But sometimes they walk hand in hand.

Mark Abley’s memoirs The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind have just been published by University of Regina Press.

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