Playlist: The Connection Between Baroque Music and Medicine
Our next playlist of Handel and his contemporaries has the timely theme of Music & Medicine. Composers have often been associated with their ailments, whether that’s JS Bach’s loss of sight, Beethoven’s deafness or Chopin’s fight against tuberculosis. All are examples of composers who portrayed their health struggles through their music.
The Baroque music on this playlist was inspired by the composers’ various illnesses, medical treatments, and even the anxiety brought on by the thought of surgery without anaesthesia. Find out more below and listen to the full hour’s playlist here:
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
In the 18th century, lead was often used to combat bacteria in various drinks, including wine. Handel was known to enjoy his wine and it has been speculated that he suffered a bad case of lead poisoning that left him with stomach colic, pain, creeping paralysis, bad-temper and eventually blindness.
Handel imbued his compositions with these experiences, and this is especially noticeable after he suffered from a paralysis of his right hand in 1737. He spent some time in a spa town where he received treatment, far from any contact with lead and made a remarkable recovery – the nuns called it a miracle! Music historian Dr David Hunter believed that this episode inspired Handel: “It was partly as a result of the paralysis he suffered and the subsequent cure that he moved more into writing oratorios than operas. His increasing infirmity, his experience of major pain – probably for the first time – and his sensitivity to his own mortality made him more interested in writing about suffering and personal stories than about gods, monarchs and heroes. There is a sense in which you can see the change taking place; there is a greater sensitivity to suffering. Musically it is evident too in his greater use of the minor key.”
Whilst writing Jephtha, Handel was increasingly troubled by his gradual loss of sight, and this proved to be his last oratorio. In the autograph score he wrote “Reached here on 13 February 1751, unable to go on owing to weakening of the sight of my left eye.”
This tragic context makes the aria at the end of the oratorio entitled ‘Sweet as sight to the blind’ even more moving.
Marin Marais (1656-1728)
Marais endured a surgical intervention at the age of 64 to remove a stone from his bladder. Le Tableau de l’Opération de la Taille expresses his experience through music, starting with a dark opening marking the anxiety felt prior to the procedure, followed by a joyous finale celebrating the success of the operation.
As Joseph Kiefer accurately observes: “The music successfully depicts the apprehension, fear, agitation, and other emotions of the patient as well as the mounting tension of the operation itself, building up to the climactic extraction of the stone.”
Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745)
The Dictionnaire de L’Académie Française defined the word “hipocondrie” as “a kind of malady, usually of long duration, that makes one strange and morose, and in which one complains of various pains and of excessive suffering, in spite of an appearance of good health. Deep sorrow, sedentary habits, etc., predispose one to hipocondrie.” Zelenka brilliantly represents this harrowing condition in his piece Hipocondrie à 7 Concertanti, using a mix of slow, chordal music, dotted rhythms, and a display of contrapuntal stretches, offering sentiments of nervous energy and an air of profound gloom.
Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667)
Composer Johann Jakob Froberger was a keen traveller, having spent time in Paris and Rome, visiting fellow composers. It is during his travels to London that Froberger experienced episodes of melancholia. The foggy and damp climate of London in the 17th century made people particularly susceptible to melancholia, which was named the “English Malady”. What would have exacerbated Froberger’s melancholia upon his arrival, was his traumatic run-in with pirates whilst crossing the channel. It is in this context that Froberger wrote his Plainte and Suites pour passer la melancholie.