MUSIC AND medicine? They seem an unlikely match.
Even Jacques Barzun, the eminent scholar, author and cultural historian who was the keynote speaker at a Baltimore symposium on the subject last week, admitted that "it was quite a while before I saw any possibility in the idea, any way to develop it."
But by the time Barzun and his fellow panelists had their say, the linkage seemed the most natural and even obvious thing in the world. And the source of a provocative hypothesis Barzun was led to - that perhaps part of the reason the Western world "is in such poor shape, spiritually, politically, and every other way," is that "there's too much of both - too much music and too much medicine."
"Our centers of culture," mused Barzun, relaxing before the symposium, "are wearing out the arts with overuse and overexposure. And modern medicine has foisted upon us such a preoccupation with diseases and death that we walk around in continual dread.What's healthy about that?"
Though he expected "to be argued with and shown the error of my ways" by the notables, both medical and musical, who joined him in the discussion, Barzun got surprisingly little backtalk on the issue, especially from the doctors.
In his formal remarks - at Turner Auditorium in Johns Hopkins hospital under the joint sponsorship of Johns Hopkins and the Peabody Conservatory of Music - Barzun enlarged upon the theme.
"Health used to be thought of as a result, or byproduct of other activities," said the author of "Science: The Great Entertainment" and "The House of Intellect."
"Nowadays, we charge headlong after health as if it were not a quality but a lump.
"We try to engineer our well-being. We try to engineer our strength, our complexions, our sexual friskiness. And so we are faced with an excess of doctoring, of surgery, of pill-taking. But it's not living well to be continually reminded of maladies and death. Life isn't worth living in fear, in constant fear, of its being spoiled or ended."
In a similar vein, he chided the present-day purveyors of music, and cultural institutions generally. "Neither is it living well to be exposed unceasingly to works of high art, which tend thus to lose their freshness and impact."
Noting the staggering number of chamber music concerts and series in New York, particularly in museums, he declared, "this is not feasting, but gluttony. Nothing [referring to musical masterworks] any longer sounds as it used to, as it still could sound, if we ever let it rest. In fact, a person who is living well is not able to stand the St. Matthew Passion more than once a year."
Barzun obviously took a certain pugnacious glee in these charges. Before his retirement from Columbia University in 1975, he was one of the revered lions of the campus, and he's written a definitive study of Berlioz as well as many other books on music and the history of ideas. His speechmaking is polished, crisp, erudite, witty and debonair - in his brahminesque appearance and manner, he reminds one of John Houseman as Professor Kingsfield in "The Paper Chase," without the acidic disdain.
When Elliot Galkin, the director of Peabody and moderator of the symposium, told Barzun what the subject of his talk was to be and said "do anything you want with it," Barzun admits he was "stunned at having to face such a double-headed monster."
A unifying thread, however, began to appear "in the light that Greek and Roman mythology sheds on human affairs," he recollected. "I was stymied until I remembered Apollo, who was the god of healing and the leader of the nine muses, that is, the arts, and in particular the art of music. From here I arrived at the notion that medicine and music are two ways of making human beings whole and healthy. Indeed music, and all the arts, can often serve as a kind of preventive medicine, in defiance of oblivion and death; in comedy and tragedy, they can fortify us against the evils of life; and sometimes they act as an anodyne, affording us relief and escape from life's pain or travail."
As for medicinal involvements in music, Barzun noted that the world of music, especially the subculture of amateur music-making, was "overpopulated with doctors out of all statistical proportion." There must be something special in the relation of doctors to music, he observed, because "many doctors play chamber music and play it well, and this is all the more remarkable in that doctors are usually accustomed to ordering others around and aren't very good at taking orders themselves: but in the case of playing trios and quartets, doctors are at least willing to follow the dictates of composers - especially if they're dead."
Other panelists offered numerous confirming links between the two disciplines, some external and some of a more instrinsic order.
Dr. Owsei Temkin, emeritus professor of medical history at Johns Hopkins, remarked that Greek physicians of Hippocrates' time compared nerves to the strings of a lyre: both required proper tension and tuning; to Hippocrates, a wholesome body implied "a correct attunement." He also observed that the word "harmonia" which originally meant the joining of two bones, was in use as an anatomical term until recent time.
Irving Lowens, dean of Peabody and former music critic of the Washington Star, quoted Francis Bacon to the effect that the function of medicine was "to tune this curious harp of man's body, and to reduce it to harmony."
Neurosurgeon George Udvarhelyi, chief organizer of the symposium, cited the inmate friendship of Theodor Billroth, the father of modern surgery and an accomplished musician, with Johannes Brahms, who dedicated two of his three string quartets to Billroth.
Composer Robert Hall Lewis recalled the medicinal role of the celebrated "Goldberg Variations," which Bach wrote to alleviate the insomnia of a Russian diplomat, through performances on the harpischord by Bach's pupil Johann Goldberg. Lewis stressed that the piece wasn't written to put the diplomat to sleep, but to entertain his walking hours.
Sergiu Comissiona, conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, commented on the specific physiological effects of music. "Hindemith always makes me thirsty," he gibed, "and after conducting Debussy, I cannot drink beer."
Controversy flared briefly in an exchange between Barzun and Lewis over the salutary effects of contemporary music. Barzun maintained that too much recent music was so obsessed with "technicity" that it was "above the capacity of willing and intelligent persons," leaving listeners with nothing but depression and "a sense of arduous labor."
Lewis countered with the assertion that contemporary composers were unwilling to insult the intelligence of listeners. He also wondered why the exploratory spirit of medical research didn't extend, in the case of musically inclined medicos, to music of the 20th century.
No one noted in this connection that medicines, medical procedures and surgery may be aimed at restoring health and happiness, but are often in themselves disagreeable or painful. By the same token, while the discordancies of much modern music may be experienced as harsh or agonizing, they may intend and sometimes achieve a healing enlightenment in relation to the dissonances of modern life.
Many other aspects of the linkage were touched upon in the course of the meeting - for instance, the role of music as therapy, which goes back to the ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hindus and is today a very active branch of medical study and practice; and the occupational diseases of throat and lungs singers are subject to, as well as the dental and respiratory ailments to which wind players are prone. A densely packed, five-page bibliography prepared for the symposium and its public testified to the centuries-old interest in the relationship between music and medicine. A sample title: "Teaching medical students psychiatry through contemporary music," an article in the Journal of Medical Education last year.
The symposium concluded with a living demonstration - a concert of music performed by doctors, composed by doctors, and about the effects of doctoring.
A psychiatrist performed Bach's "Chromatic Fantasy" on the harpsichord, followed by an ensemble of Peabody students playing two movements from the D Major String Quartet of Alexander Borodin, the Russian composer who was a physician and expert biochemist by profession. Then three woodwind players recruited from Johns Hopkins, suitably attired in white hospital coats and bow ties, performed five Divertimenti by Mozart.
The clincher and piece-de-resistance, however, was "Le Tableau de I'Operation de le Taille" ("Operation for the Removal of a Stone") composed by Marin Marais in 1717 for viola da gamba and cembalo. This example of typical rococo program music describes in meticulous detail the surgical removed of a kidney stone from the point of view of the - unfortunately - unanaesthetized patient.
Verbal explications in the score were read aloud by a narrator during the performance, so that, for example, at the grave announcement of "the sight of the apparatus," one heard a descending minor scale and an anxious shiver of trills. "Solemn thoughts in the operating chair" brought on a religioso-sounding cadence. "Strapping down the limbs with silk cords" was rendered by a winding, dottednote phrase. The climax of "the incision is made," "the introduction of the forceps," and "the stone is removed" became a rising series of whinnying tremolos and a crescendo suddenly broken off.
At the very end, however, came a tripping Gigue signaling "joyous feelings at recovery." Just think of what Marais might have done with open-heart surgery or transplants - medicine's gain is music's loss.