The Sad Sonata
by Priyanjalee Perera

Tags: multimedia - film - wounded_healer - bipolar disorder - psychiatry - psychiatry and ethics -


I wrote this piece of music about a lady I met who has bipolar disorder.* She had a genetic tendency towards the condition, but the onset of her illness was triggered by the devastating discovery of abuse within her family.

As she slipped further into depression, she lost all interest in her life. She stopped working, socialising, even getting up in the mornings. I have represented this lethargy and lack of energy (which were also partly due to the drugs she has to take) by using slow, heavy chords at the beginning of the piece. The minor key represents her sadness.

In the treble cleft, there are moments of lightness, almost in a major key. This is representative of her children, who 'kept her going' when she first became ill. In the gentle, cantabile chords of the treble, I hear the voices of her children, as they call to their mother to wake her up.

The section is based on folk music, as the patient in question lives in the North-West, where a lot of English folk music originates. The simple melody and broken chord pattern denote the brief periods of normality that this lady experienced when looking after her children. Feeding them, dressing them and taking them school gave her a motive to get out of bed and go about life in the most normal way possible.

However, through a tragic set of circumstances, it was decided that her children would be better placed in another home, the three chords of two A's an octave apart in the bass clef is the sound of the external agency knocking at the door.

Sadly, the arrangement was not temporary. After this, life became unbearable for my now manically depressed lady who was distraught by the fear of losing contact with her children entirely, which I have shown using the same chords that I used to represent her children, but playing them in a slower, sadder manner.

The chord pattern becomes faster and faster, representing her spiral into hysteria, until suddenly, all tonality and structure is lost in the chromatic and improvised sections. I have added an improvised section here, because this lady described that when she was on a 'high' as opposed to a 'low', she did completely random things such as standing in the middle of the road and diverting the traffic. I have used staccato notes to reflect on her extreme surplus of energy during these 'highs'.

The piece then comes back down to a 'low' - there is no intermediate mood, just as she told me - retuning in a ternary form-fashion to the first section, this time embellished by ornaments such as trills and mordents to show the memory of her inexplicable actions during her high have added to her low.

I have finished the piece rather abruptly, after a twos-against-threes pattern. I put this in because I have always found this particular musical feature rather difficult to master, and even though there is only one bar of it in this piece, I wanted to show that bipolar disorder is a difficult condition in every respect - difficult to diagnose, difficult to treat, and above all, extremely difficult to recover from.

I really hate it when people who have never experienced such uncontrollable sadness reject it as 'ridiculous' and claim that sufferers should just 'snap out of it'. I believe that the very fact that mental health is so little understood by society makes the situation so much more difficult.

This particular lady, however, astounded me by her positive outlook. Despite her trials, she still had hopes and dreams, still pushed on with her life. I only wish that society could see that behind the 'ludicrously' of the mentally ill patient, there stands often a very resilient and admirably strong human being.

* details have been altered to maintain patient-confidentiality

Priyanjalee Perera

Creative Arts