Songs that saved my life – pianist James Rhodes on music’s redeptive power

From Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 to Bach’s Glenn Gould Goldberg Variations, James Rhodes discusses music's capacity to heal a battered soul

“We live in a word of unprecedented confusion and difficulty. Anything that we can find that makes things a little bit happier, a little bit better, we have to grab with both hands. Music is the one thing that does that. It doesn’t let you down. It doesn’t answer back. It’s legal, it’s free, it’s available all the time. God knows, we need that.”

There is no more passionate advocate for the power of music to heal a battered soul than James Rhodes. Bach, he says, saved his life. Now a renowned classical pianist, Rhodes has lived with mental ill-health since young childhood. From the age of six he experienced horrific sexual abuse at the hands of a school teacher. In the aftermath he faced “multiple surgeries, scars (inside and out), tics, OCD, depression, suicidal ideation, vigorous self-harm, alcoholism, drug addiction”. He talked explicitly about these in his previous book Instrumental.

Yet music has always been there.

Now a renowned performer, he tours frequently. He tells The Big Issue about the pieces that have meant the most to him, offering a musical prescription for better mental health for all.

‘I was seven, I was weird, but this kept me company’

JS Bach’s Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004

When I was a kid the Chaconne changed everything. I was seven, I was a weird kid, and there were lots of really difficult things happening. I found this old cassette, and on the cassette was this piece. Above all, it made me feel like even if it seemed like the world was a really hostile and appalling place, it couldn’t be that bad because something this beautiful existed in it. There are moments of such joy and such heroism in that piece. That got me through a lot of my childhood. There was no one I could talk to about [the abuse], and I felt invisible in a bad way but this music kept me company. It was like a skeleton key that helped me unlock things and understand things that children of seven or eight can’t understand. It felt like it was a secret – a good secret – that was just for me. It felt like a magic power. It still performs that function.

‘One of the perfect pieces of music’

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

When I got a piano teacher, when I was 14, I remember hearing him playing bits of this piece. Ever since then, it has just blown my mind. Rachmaninoff suffered from really bad depression. There was a period of time when he couldn’t compose, because he was just too depressed. After a long time of not being able to compose anything, he sat at the piano and he composed this. It is one of the perfect pieces of music. I love the story behind it. It was important for his health as well as the people who listened to it later. When you have a whole symphony orchestra and the piano and they’re all going batshit crazy together at the same time – it’s just super exciting. It’s like the Super Bowl. Every time I listen to that piece I feel really emotional and excited.

‘This did more for me than medication’

JS Bach’s Marcello Adagio

I was in a psychiatric hospital in 2006 and I wasn’t allowed anything. I remember listening to the Bach Marcello Adagio. It was exactly that same feeling of ‘holy shit, if something like this exists, then I have to stay alive’. That piece did more for me than any of the medication I had been put on at the time. Anything creative, it’s such an important part of feeling good, of detaching from that always-on, Twitter, Facebook, reality TV, commercial, commuting – all of that madness that is outside of us. When we stop and do something – whether it’s writing or dancing or painting or music – it helps us go inside. And that’s where the magic is.

‘This piece takes you on a journey’

JS Bach – Glenn Gould Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 

I was 18, and I was super high on acid and I remember seeing Glenn Gould jumping on the piano keys and bouncing up and down. It stuck with me. This piece takes you on a journey. It allows you to discover things about yourself. They talk about meditation and learning about yourself – music like this does that. It allows you to find different part of yourself. It’s part of the reason why it’s so distressing that music education is in such crisis. We are depriving an entire generation of children of that benefit.

Fire on All Sides: Insanity, insomnia and the incredible inconvenience of life by James Rhodes is out now (Quercus, £16.99). The CD of the same name is also out now.