Desmond O’Neill: Death and the composer: Thanatos as muse?

Desmond O'NeillEven though my clinical life is enmeshed with an active arts and health programme with music in pole position –a composer in residence in the Stroke Unit and a hospital residency by a chamber orchestra – taking part in a three day musicology conference dedicated to the late music of Schubert seemed hugely daunting at first sight.

Asked to provide a medical perspective of Schubert’s illnesses and early death, and potential role in these extraordinary works – including the String Quintet, Impromtptus, song-cycles Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise and late piano sonatas – the experience proved both refreshing and stimulating.

Set in the sylvan surroundings of the National University of Ireland in Maynooth, a small but dynamic Irish university near Dublin, the meeting brought together over 100 Schubert experts from around the world for three intense days of music and musicology.

Although this immersion was marked by frequent plunges into waters well out of my depth, the enterprise was carried aloft by the enthusiasm, scholarship, and exhilaration of focusing on one of the most approachable lodestones of Western culture. Indeed, my own first memory of music was of my mother playing the liquid gold of the Schubert Impromptus when I was a very small child, a fantastic gift in retrospect.

Leavening the musicological analysis were the twin streams of performance and a quest to illuminate the psychosocial context of the music. A musical highlight was a short concert of Schubert’s sacred music in the university’s chapel, a Victorian jewel encompassing both the Gothic Revival and Arts and Crafts movements. Surely designed with the choral austerity of Stanford and Parry in mind, the Schubert evoked a wonderful cultural contrast, the gaiety of the Viennese heuriger constantly bubbling to the surface of this mellifluously spiritual and heartfelt work.

The draw of Schubert’s late music was strikingly caught in a keynote lecture focusing on the use of his string quartets in the films of Woody Allen, particularly Crimes and Misdemeanours. Engagingly linked to the late work of Samuel Beckett, presentations like this helped to illuminate Schubert, and served a model for evangelisation of the deep relevance of late Schubert to the human condition.

Other presentations focused on areas such as the supremely subtle exploration of loneliness and isolation in lieder such Der Einsame (The Hermit), where the alchemy of Schubert’s settings of otherwise ironic or mawkish texts allows for a complexity of insight that no language, even Wordsworth’s “bliss of solitude,” can hope to approach.

My own task was rendered lighter by leaning on the helpful musicological concept of “reception history.” As described by the historian Marcuse, this traces the different ways in which participants, observers, historians, and other retrospective interpreters have attempted to make sense of events both as they unfolded and over time since then, to make those events meaningful for the present in which they lived.

This concept is very relevant for Schubert, much of whose music (other than lieder and sacred works) was not performed during his lifetime and for many years after. It was beautifully illustrated by a magisterially droll and deadpan talk tracing the disappearance and reappearance from public view of the now ubiquitous Marche Militaire in many guises, including a Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1935, and a wonderful photo of 14 virtuosi (and their grand pianos) performing the piece at a benefit in Carnegie Hall in 1922.

And so too it is with the reception history of Schubert’s illnesses, and the many and varied labels applied over the decades. While it is clear that he suffered from secondary syphilis in 1824, the medical literature has approached the next four years until his death with the indiscretion of Procrustes’ axe* rather than the dexterity of Occam’s razor. Schubert needs to be rescued from the narrow constraints of two-dimensional labels of “poor,” “unsuccessful” (he had a significant amount of work published during his lifetime) and “terminal syphilitic.”

Although syphilis was an unwelcome (and fairly public) diagnosis, other issues weighed on the debit side of his life, including financial insecurity in a deteriorating economic climate and gender ambivalence. Against this needs to be balanced the positive correspondence of his last months, describing a three day walk to Haydn’s grave in Eisenstadt and reading Fennimore Cooper in the month before he died. Almost certainly his own doctors were right in ascribing his death to typhoid, and I hope I served the congress well by directing attention to the psychological rather than physical aspects of his illnesses.

For it is impossible not believe that we will learn more about the impact of illness on Schubert, a torch-bearer at Beethoven’s funeral, from the gritty resolve of Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament – tellingly, written at the age of twenty-eight – than from focusing on the biology of syphilis.

I left the conference uplifted, challenged, and reassured that engagement with scholarly inquiry into forms of human greatness which reflect and elevate our nature remains as deserving of our attention as molecular biology and the human genome project.

*Procrustes, the bandit innkeeper of Greek mythology, fitted his guests to his bed by stretching the short ones on a rack, and trimming the legs of the tall ones with his axe.

Desmond O’Neill, consultant physician in geriatric and stroke medicine,