Professor Des O’Neill
One of the pleasures of medicine is the frequent sense of a shared vision of how enmeshed it is with the humanities. As a group, doctors tend to have a high level of cultural engagement: for example, our own studies show that over 50% of medical students play, or have played an instrument http://mh.bmj.com/content/42/2/109.long. Yet we rarely celebrate our cultural participation in a collegial manner, and perhaps it is time that we more openly acknowledged this shared portal to the bigger picture in life and medicine.
These elements came to life vividly at a remarkable workshop in Belfast in early February for the nascent Irish Medical Choir. It arose because the very talented European Doctors Orchestra https://www.europeandoctorsorchestra.com/ has decided to scale new heights with a concert in Belfast in November featuring Mahler’s mighty 2nd symphony, the Resurrection Symphony https://www.europeandoctorsorchestra.com/next-concerts/.
As the work has an extensive choral finale (as well as the chill-inducing Urlicht in the fourth movement http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1196/annals.1360.041/abstract ), a bright idea was to recruit a chorus drawn from medical practitioners and students across the island of Ireland.
The take-up has been fantastic, with a waiting list of highly qualified sopranos and altos, albeit some space yet for tenors, a constant for choral societies around the world! The introductory workshop was an intense pleasure at many levels, with virtually all specialties represented, and ranging from medical students to those retired for many years, a very intergenerational project.
Having expected a direct exposure to the Mahler, we were initially surprised by the list of works provided by the expert and engaging choir master, Brian MacKay http://www.zezerearts.com/brian-mackay-artistic-director. In the event it was a brilliantly constructed voyage around Mahler, proving as ever that the elliptical beats the direct approach every time.
Our choral journey allowed us to engage with historical and contemporary contexts for Mahler’s music, preparing the soil for future rehearsals. The first work was an eighteenth century hymn by Graun based on a Klopstock poem on the resurrection. It is this piece, played at the funeral of the celebrated conductor Han von Bülow, which inspired Mahler to use the poem in the symphony and it was both simple and affecting.
A perspective of late-romantic German choral music was provided by Josef Rheinberger’s Abendlied, a truly beautiful piece which was a fantastic discovery for most of us (and do watch out for his (and Reger’s) brilliant re-working of the Goldberg Variations for piano four-hands http://www.tal-groethuysen.de/cds/bach-goldberg-variations.html!).
We then immersed ourselves in another avenue of spiritual music, the potent and deep Rejoice, O Virgin, from Rachmaninov’s Vespers. It was a visceral shock to be a part of this extraordinary music, a further intensification of the feelings arising from my recent exploration of choral singing https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2017/01/03/desmond-oneill-singing-in-the-new-year/.
Friendships and connections were forged over lunch, and I was in awe at the wide range of pursuits and achievements of those present, and sense of shared pleasure and purpose. After some business arrangements for upcoming rehearsals, we then sight read twice through the first movement of Brahms German Requiem, further extending our aesthetic, communal, pleasurable and spiritual journey.
For a group dealing with illness and death throughout our working lives, there is something extraordinary reassuring and quietly energizing about this participation in music probing mortality, resurrection and a deep sense of consolation. All of these composers had more extensive personal exposure to death than we do https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2011/05/24/des-oneill-death-and-transfiguration/ and their music provides an extra layer of opportunities to see the bigger picture, echoing and providing a more positive spin to Milan Kundera’s dictum that all we can do in the face of that ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it.
The coda to the meeting was a clear desire to continue an Irish Medical Choir after the Mahler, a testament to the organizers, our choir master, and those positive elements in medical life which make it such an interesting and satisfying career. If you are a Mahler fan, do consider joining us in the Ulster Hall on Sunday, the 26th of November: all proceeds will go to music and health charities.
Des O’Neill is a professor of geriatric medicine and co-chair of the Medical and Health Humanities Initiative at Trinity College Dublin https://www.tcd.ie/trinitylongroomhub/medical-humanities/