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Composers with disability from history and today

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Composers with disability are gaining recognition for their work today, especially since the implementation of International Day of People With Disability. But there have been many composers in history of classical music who lived with disability and diseases which influences their musical contributions. You know some of their names and have very likely heard and loved their music . Some historical diseases have now become preventable. Other conditions are still part of our lives today.

Despite their long presence, voices from musicians with disability remain under-represented, and in many cases unsupported in the classical music world. This list is as much a recognition of their contributions, in spite of the challenges they faced, as it is a celebration of their music.

Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century composer, abbess, writer and saint experienced debilitating headaches throughout her life. In her most famous work, Scivias, Hildegard said of her motivation to write her visions "laid low by the scourge of God, I fell upon a bed of sickness; then, compelled at last by many illnesses, … I set my hand to the writing."

Hildegard's recurring illness has been the subject of medical speculations. In 1913, a young scientist and historian named Charles Singer retrospectively diagnosed she might have had migraines. Celebrated author and neurologist Oliver Sacks even devoted a chapter to describe Hildegard's symptoms in his 1970 book Migraine.

Although Hildegard's migraine diagnosis is fraught with scholarly debates among scientists, her work resonated with others who know the ups and downs of this common condition.

Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Händel

Besides being some of the Baroque era's most famous composers, Bach and Handel shared a darker bond: their progressive vision loss and botched eye operations.

It is almost impossible to know what caused Bach's and Handel's vision loss, though musicologists suggest they may have had cataracts, a common eye condition among older adults. There was no laser treatment during Bach and Handel's time. Instead, they had to undergo a surgery in the hands of John Taylor, an eminent British eye surgeon who paid scant regard to basic hygiene while operating on his patients.

Travelling with his eye-painted coach from place to place, making a spectacle of his medical procedure, Taylor operated on Bach in March and April 1750. Bach died in July of that year after a post-surgery complication. Taylor also treated Handel shortly before the composer's death in 1758. Using a method called "couching," in which a needle was poked into the eye and the cataract-clouded lens pushed into the rear, out of the field of vision, Taylor would leave town before his patient's bandages came off.

YOUTUBETotal Eclipse (Air of Samson) by George Frideric Handel

Maria Theresia von Paradis

Maria Theresia von Paradis was a gifted performer, composer and teacher. She became blind before the age of five. Being the daughter of an imperial secretary to Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Paradis was acquainted with some of the biggest musical names of the time including the Mozarts (Wolfgang and Nannerl), Salieri, Haydn and Gluck.

Paradis was briefly treated by Franz Anton Mesmer (who invented animal magnetism) before she was removed for fear of scandal. During one of her tours to Paris, Paradis met Valentin Haüy, who founded the first school for the blind which would later be attended by Louis Braille, the inventor of the alphabet and music notation which bore his name.

Paradis used a board invented by her partner and librettist Johann Riedinger to write out her compositions. She also used a hand-printing machine invented by Wolfgang von Kempelen for correspondence. Ironically, after Braille devised his code for blind musicians, and although there have been several established blind composers — predominantly from Paris — none of them are women.

Many of Paradis' works are now lost, and other compositions attributed to her can't be fully verified as her work. Her most famous piece, Sicilienne, was likely written by a 20th Century violinist called Samuel Dushkin who purported to have discovered it.

Ludwig van Beethoven

"Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others," Beethoven wrote to his brothers in 1802 in a document known as the Heiligenstadt testament which laid bare his hearing loss and the severity of its effects in his professional and social life.

Beethoven attributed the start of his hearing loss from as early as 1798. He was born in 1770 and died in 1827, which means he lived with progressive hearing loss for half his life time.

What Beethoven could and couldn't hear is the subject of much scholarly fascination, given his enormous contribution to Classical music as we know it. Did he write his later symphonies in the state of profound deafness, or was he still able to hear some sounds up to the premiere of his Ninth Symphony in 1824, three years before his death?

Musicologists are still working out how Beethoven's hearing loss played out in his life. In 2020, on Beethoven's 250th anniversary, Theodore Albrecht, a leading Beethoven expert revealed conversation books where Beethoven and his friends discuss the topic of hearing loss. Albrecht described how friends would write questions and comments to which the composer would reply aloud. They also discussed the pros and cons of the ear trumpets – the hearing aid technology of the time.

Fortunately, his hearing loss didn't stop Beethoven from composing.

When discussing Beethoven's contribution towards understanding musicians with hearing loss, cellist and mathematician Matthew Mack observes that "I can't ask him how he did it, because he's not around anymore." Mack, who also lives with hearing loss emphasises although we can learn from history, it couldn't replace the values of having a support network community today.

Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann may have embodied the epitome of Romantic composers. Ambitious and self-aware, Schumann was troubled by his frequent illness and "melancholia" . He wrote in his diary how he was plagued by sound and visions, to an extent he admitted himself to a "mental asylum" . Yet no one really knew what ailed Schumann.

When describing Schumann, words such as madness, melancholia, mania, depression and many more are used to speculate on his various symptoms. Other retrospective diagnosis conjectured he might've had any combination of syphilis, colloid cyst, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or even dystonia which restricted his hand movement when playing the piano. Perhaps what Schumann represents is the complexity of mental and physical health which remains as much a feature of today's life as it would be in the 1850s.

We may never know the details of the illnesses which impacted Schumann, but we do have the enduring legacy of his music which was strongly championed by his wife Clara.

YOUTUBEDaniel Barenboim plays Träumerei by Robert Schumann

In recent years, Clara Schumann's role as carer, concert pianist and composer in her own right has gained more recognition. Clara reduced her concerts after marrying Schumann, then went back to performing and touring as a means to support her family while her husband was ill and after his death.

Maurice Ravel

French composer Maurice Ravel's last years were marked by progressive brain disease which left its traces in his music. Despite his disease, Ravel composed his most significant works during this period including his iconic orchestral work Boléro, Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and Piano Concerto in G Major.

Researchers surmised Boléro, which uses two themes, each repeated eight times, shows Ravel's loss of left brain function. Despite this, the composer didn't lose his creativity. Boléro has 30 superimposed lines, and 25 different combinations of sounds.

Francois Boller, a researcher from Paris explains Ravel became trapped in his body. "He didn't lose the ability to compose music, he lost the ability to express it."

Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, which also use repeated themes is unique for a different reason. It was commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, whose right arm was amputated during World War I.

Ravel said about his concerto "The fear of difficulty, however, is never as keen as the pleasure of contending with it, and, if possible, of overcoming it. That is why I acceded to Wittgenstein's request to compose a concerto for him. I carried out my task with enthusiasm…". To fulfil his brief, Ravel meticulously studied Saint-Saëns' left hand études, noting the intricate techniques and range.

Wittgenstein commissioned many more piano pieces for the left hand, including by Britten, Korngold, Prokofiev and Hindemith (the latter was only discovered in 2002).

John Rutter

Post-viral fatigue syndrome has gained greater recognition since the COVID-19 pandemic when large numbers of people reported they experienced lingering fatigue and other symptoms. But the disease has been around for a long time.

Composer John Rutter caught chickenpox from his baby son in the 1980s. He recovered, but a year later, he began to experience fatigue, horrible headaches and bad digestion. "This was the time when myalgic encephalomyelitis began to be recognised as a disease. It laid me low for seven years on and off," Rutter says in a BBC interview in 2013. myalgic encephalomyelitis is one of the conditions which causes chronic fatigue.

Rutter described how the chronic fatigue affected his life at what he said ought to be the busiest time in his career. "There were good periods and bad periods. In the bad periods you don't have the energy to do anything much," Rutter said. 

"I realise I couldn't do commissions," Rutter says, noting he relied on the last-minute spurt of inspiration just before the deadline. Rutter's Requiem, a project he wrote in his own time at his own pace was written during this period, and was arguably one of his strongest works.

Rutter made a return to "normal" life in the 1990s through a peer-support help group which discussed factors including diet and rest.

YOUTUBEJohn Rutter

Molly Joyce

In 2022, it is rare to find a composer who is open about their disability. It is even rarer to find composing women with disability. This is where American composer and performer Molly Joyce fills the gap.

Joyce, who was born in 1991 has an impaired left hand – the result of a childhood car accident. She holds composition degrees from Juilliard School of Music, the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Netherlands, and Yale University.

Joyce uses her disability as a wellspring of inspiration for her work, exploring themes such as physical impairment and creating works which showcases virtuosity in her own terms.

In an interview with Washington Post in 2020, Joyce explains the barrier she faced while learning instruments including cello and trumpet. "Classical instruments are made for very specific abilities, and so even new-music compositions are reiterating these flawed notions of what human ability can and should be, or disability in general."

Joyce's main instrument is a toy organ with an array of chord buttons on the left and standard keyboard on the right. But she also writes for other instruments including voice, percussion, clarinet and cello.

For now, Joyce has most of her compositions output ahead of her.

As the Disability rights movement has gained traction in recent years, more and more composers are identifying as having disabilities. In Australia, composer Georgia Scott and Daman Smith openly draw from their disabilities as inspiration for their music. Others, such as neurodiverse musician Sophia Mackson are exploring their potentials of becoming composers. These musicians, and many others, are carving a place for themselves in the music world. Like composers throughout history, their experiences are the source of richness in their music. However, unlike most composers and musicians up until recently, they can bring their whole selves to their music making.


Source: ABC

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