Of Illness and Creativity

The links between ill health and musical composition have a long history.

Thomas Mann in Munich, 1932. Shared under Creative Commons License.
Thomas Mann in Munich, 1932. Shared under Creative Commons License.
Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

The German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955) makes an interesting observation when he writes in his youthful novella Tonio Kröger: ‘A property constituted, healthy, decent man never writes, acts, or composes.’

Here, Mann states that artistic creativity belongs to an inherent sickliness of the creator.

While Mann would continuously revisit the theme of illness and its important role on creation throughout his career (e.g. The Magic Mountain), it is in his Faustian masterpiece Doctor Faustus where a decisive commentary on musical creativity is made. Here, a fictional composer Adrian Leverkuhn contracts syphilis through the devil, an act which results in the composer’s unleashing of unworldly creative powers.

‘If it is healthiness that you are after – well, with mind and art it has not got much to do, it even in a sort of way opposes them,’ prophesises a character in the book.

On the one hand, one can dismiss Mann’s preoccupation as a form of eccentric and degenerate fantasy. On the other hand, the inverse relationship between a healthy body and musical creation can be found commonly throughout history.

For example, Demodocus from Homer’s Odyssey is portrayed as being ‘gifted’ a physical impairment for his musical ability (‘the squire now came, leading their favourite bard, whom the Muse loved above all others, [al]though she had mingled good and evil in her gifts, robbing him of his eyes but granting him the gift of sweet song.’). Similarly, when the Indian saint, poet and musician Surdas decides to devote himself to the creation of devotional songs, he does this by voluntarily imposing upon himself blindness.

The 14th century poet Eustache Deschamps (1340-1406) describes poets and musicians as fumeurs (smokers). Bodily irregularities and ill health are commonly observed in these individuals, and this phenomenon can be seen as a case of biological determinism in artistic creation.

Suffering of a physical nature plays a crucial theme in the story of the Greek god Dionysus. Born from a mortal mother, Dionysus undergoes physical annihilation (‘the fragments of the body […] boiled in a great cauldron, and made impious banquet’) until only the soul is preserved. Through Zeus Dionysus resurrects, becoming the god of wine, religious ecstasy, and in many cases, music.

In Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, Dionysus’ physical suffering and consequent spiritual emancipation is set as the ideal model for music of greatness. ‘The whole world of agony is needed in order to compel the individual to generate the releasing and redemptive vision’, writes Nietzsche.

Bacchus (Dionysus) by Paulus Bor

These examples demonstrate how physical malady becomes an ingredient for great musical creations. But is there any truth in this Faustian trade-off? If so, one would at least expect a certain rebirth of musical creativity after the onset of a severe illness.

Is there a composer more well-known than Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) for physical ailment? Beethoven’s infamous deafness reached clinical levels by 1815, significantly discouraging him from public performances as well as spoken communication. Signs of jaundice and a perilous lung disease started to emerge by 1820.

Around this time, Beethoven’s musical language undergoes a radical change to enter what we know as the ‘late period’. If Beethoven’s earlier works are breath-taking for their heroic passions and engulfing drama, these late works breathe an air of wondrous serenity and reflection. A timeless quality pervades in Beethoven’s late style, and this can be heard in the late string quartets. Was this the sound that Beethoven heard, in his silent isolated world?

Notwithstanding contextual gaps, there are large similarities between the late string quartets of Beethoven and those of the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). The late Beethovenian spirit of serene abandon is especially pronounced in Shostakovich’s 15th quartet. By this time, Shostakovich had experienced multiple injuries (e.g. crippling injuries to his writing hand and both legs) and heart attacks, and records inform us of the composer’s increasing awareness of his own mortality.

In six dirge-like slow movements, the music unfolds through quiet intensity; it is as if the composer internalised his trademark style of angular expressivity into a voice of inward-looking meditation. This is what the composer had to say about the work’s performance: ‘play the first movement so that flies drop dead in mid-air and the audience leaves the hall out of sheer boredom.’ The overall impression of the work suggests a feeling both terrifying and soothing.

Alfred Schnittke’s (1934-1998) 9th symphony was conceived in the midst of a series of strokes, a condition he battled for the last 13 years of his life and which left the composer’s entire right side of the body paralysed. Written with his weaker left hand, the difficulty the composer had to bear in writing this work is unimaginable. Unlike Schnittke’s usual incorporation of polystylism – where different styles and genres are exuberantly juxtaposed to form a strange tapestry of musical memories – the 9th symphony has an uncharacteristic solemnity and brevity, as well as stylistic coherence. Underneath the struggle, it is as if Schnittke found a deeply enclosed personal language, no longer in need of quotations from distant places and times.

Allan Pettersson’s (1911-1980) career as a concert violinist came to an end prematurely through rheumatoid arthritis. Upon finishing his 9th symphony, nephritis (a kidney condition) forced extensive hospitalisation. Desperation over such physical hardship is expressed remarkably and brutally in his 10th symphony; Pettersson eliminates his usual hallmark of religious undertones, represented by sublime choral sections. Instead, the music expresses a mortifying state of resignation and disappointment. In parts where the musical logic seems to point to an optimistic plane, hopes are bitterly exterminated, an effect most devastatingly felt at the very end.

As if to secure such a message to his listeners, Pettersson provides an introduction:

The angel of death is a hypocritical poetic figure. Death has nothing to do with mercifulness, because he casually randomizes the strong relation between sadness and sickness, especially when the antipole, the strength to live, is weak. The aim is life, not death. When he comes, he comes like a national decree. I cannot accept him, he doesn’t go together with my will to live. Death, my constant shadow, is stronger yet than I. Or is it He himself, God, with whom I as a man experiment in another life form?

Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) late works are hardly late by the standard definition, given the untimely death of the composer that came at the age of 31. Yet there is little disagreement on the unique autumnal soundscape that Schubert draws from the year of 1823, where symptoms of syphilis appear, until his death five years later.

It would be no exaggeration to claim that the late style Schubert finds root from the disease. Various letters show Schubert’s lamentations over his own ill health (e.g. ‘I am the most unhappy and miserable person in this world… my health will never improve, and in such despair, things will only become worse instead of better…’) coincide with themes of death becoming increasingly frequent in his musical output.

There is a youthful vitality that struggles underneath the detrimental progression towards the composer’s physical non-being, which altogether makes the resigned undertones of Schubert’s late works sound bitter and morbid, yet also with a warm dose of humanity. These characteristics stand out in Schubert’s last group of songs, compiled posthumously as the Schwanengesang (‘Swan Song’).

As if to approve Mann’s observations on illness and creation, these works demonstrate a creative outburst that largely finds causality in physical deterioration. Moreover, the transformations imply a strong pulse of originality and deeply personal contemplation.

In a sense, one can view sickness as a gateway into life’s wisdoms otherwise unobtainable, through which an elevated aesthetic language is created. This view is verified in Mann’s own words when he said ‘the concept of illness and death, as a necessary passage to knowledge, health, and life.’ Here, Schopenhauer’s (1788-1860) worldview, where threats of physical annihilation of the self are seen as a necessary condition of an ‘eternal, peaceful, knowledge subject’, is strongly echoed.

Alternatively, although the life of the mind which transcends the ‘merely’ tangible is all important in the intangible world of music, is it not an able body that provides a minimal agency for thought? Subjugation of the body to a sickly force, therefore, is a powerfully humbling experience, whereupon an individual realises and accepts his/her limits, and consequently becomes a source for spiritual, à la musical, reinvention.

Notwithstanding the fascinating logic, however, there are some inconsistencies. Consider, for instance, composers who stopped composition after the onset of health issues (e.g. Haydn) or whose most radical inventions happened during good health (e.g. Beethoven, Stravinsky, Schoenberg). These stands directly opposed to the scenario of Adrian in Doctor Faustus.

Moreover, the biblical story of David healing Saul through the powers of music demonstrates the Christian ideal of music being intrinsically linked with health, a reference that can be found in various texts throughout history (e.g. Abraham Cowley’s Davideis of  1650). Also, the Roman senator Boethius illustrates the notion of musica humana, a spiritual link between ably proportioned and functional bodies with musicality. Ancient Greek theories of music (e.g. the Pythagorean ratio) similarly saw a certain continuity in music, harmony and health.

Saul and David, by Rembrandt.

These examples may deem Mann’s preoccupation as somewhat forced. Still, one cannot deny the strange appeal towards the myth of ill health-based musical creativity, something that captivated the minds of people throughout history. It is inconceivable, as long as humans continue a healthy capacity of high imagination, to expect an end to this fantasy any time soon.

Ultimately, however, I intend to conclude positively. When, for instance, Beethoven is seen from the public as a Heroic Overcomer, there is as much ennoblement and acknowledgement of his courage as his physical suffering. In reality, the overall message, I hope, is a life-affirming one.

Read more by Young-Jin Hur on Corymbus:

Silence: A Fertile Soil

Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’). His writings are available on his blog Where Cherries Ripen.