Thursday, 15 December 2016


Today’s installment of Inspirations draws not from external sources of muse-ical influence - such as through the lives and exploits of famous monarchs or through nail-biting moments in revolutionary history – but rather from the musicians themselves.

From composers to conductors and celebrated chanteurs, to musicians and musically gifted veterans of war, this inspirational edition presents to the reader a cornucopia of malady and misery, ultimately triumphed by an indomitable sense of passion and an optimistic perspective.

Without further ado, Unraveling Musical Myths presents some of Western Classical Music’s most gifted and perseverant masters of the musical arts:


We all know Beethoven first began to experience the symptoms auditory paracusia whilst still in his productive years – a pre-cursor to a total loss of hearing which left the composer entirely deaf by the time he expired in late March of 1827.

What few remember is that two more famous composers of iconic stature – both Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederick Händel – both fell victim to total sensory deprivation – in the form of blindness. In fact, Bach would tragically lose his eyesight – and his life - shortly after the master of the baroque attempted to remedy his failing vision by allowing the Quack “eye surgeon” (the Chevalier John Taylor) to operate on him – twice. Taylor's questionable methods left Bach completely blind after the first “surgery.” Four months after the second ‘operation’ the composer was dead – the victim of a stroke - allegedly directly caused by the botched operation and complications experienced during a very much delayed period of healing. Shockingly, Taylor would perform the exact same procedure in 1791 on Handel…who he also blinded.

Bach and Handel aren’t the only famous icons of classical music to have been stricken with blindness. One of the modern era’s most famous musical figures to share the same affliction is a household name – even in homes whose inhabitants may be unfamiliar with the musical genre.

Crossover tenor Andrea Bocelli is slated to
perform at the 2017 Presidential Inauguration
of President-Elect Donald Trump alongside
former television vocal contest participant-
turned-recording artist Jackie Evancho.
UPDATE: As of December 19 2016, New
York Post's Page Six is reporting Bocelli to
have "pulled out" from the Inauguration due
to "backlash." [Article]
That notable figure is the Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. About to be born into this world one 1958 eve at a hospital in Lajatico, Italy, young Bocelli would have been completely unaware of the unfolding life-and-death drama surrounding his very existence as he lay safely within the confines of his mothers womb. His doting mother would have to make the most important decision of her – and her child’s - life: suffering from an acute state of appendicitis and being treated with the application of ice at the site of inflammation, the mother Bocelli was warned by physicians that the child presently in utero would almost certainly be born bearing a congenital defect – they persisted in pressuring Ms. Bocelli to undergo an abortion procedure.

She refused.

Bocelli, who would grow up to become one of classical music’s most popular crossover artists of all time – and who was born with congenital glaucoma, leading to eventual blindness in 1970 (after he was hit in the head by a football) – famously thanked his mother during a live television performance in 2010, professing both her bravery and optimism before a crowd of his adoring fans - telling the audience:

"The doctors had to apply some ice on her stomach and when the treatments ended the doctors suggested that she abort her child.

They told her it was the best solution because the baby would be born with some disability..but the young brave wife decided not to abort, and the child was born.

That woman was my mother, and I was the child… maybe I'm partisan, but I can say that it was the right choice and I hope that this could encourage many mothers who sometimes might find themselves in difficult situations but want to save the life of their baby."

Then there is the case of the famous blind pianist who conquered 18th century musical Europe – and perhaps even the heart of a little known composer by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Maria Theresia von Paradis
Her name was Maria Theresia von Paradis. She performed before such esteemed characters as King George III and the Prince of Wales, and even received tutelage from maestros Antonio Salieri, Abbé Vogler, and Vincenzo Righini (for singing).

After briefly meeting – and performing with – Herr Mozart at the premiere of the then-12 year old’s opera Bastien and Bastienne – held at the home of the noted (and sometimes reviled, depending on which 18th century notable you would have asked) physician Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer (who had developed a close relationship with the child Paradis, then only 14), a lasting friendship between the two pubescent musical wunderkinds had officially been struck.

Mesmer, who sought a hefty payday by introducing the talented young pianist to Mozart and who then attempted to “cure” Paradis of the affliction of blindness which he felt was “psychosomatic” in nature – or “dictated by the unconscious” as he called it - would be instrumental in launching the girls' meteoric rise to fame.

There remains some debate about the etiology – perhaps even the legitimacy – of young Maria Theresia’s blindness. Paradis herself would add to the rumor mill with a rather ominous portent of her own, when she claimed to experience flashbacks of some suffocating force when required to reminisce upon on the onset of her loss of eyesight.

In any event, Paradis’ blindness – alleged or real – did not deter the young virtuoso. Mozart remained an ardent admirer of the young pianist, composing a concerto for piano, pianoforte and orchestra – allegedly for Maria Theresia – in 1784, which he titled Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat major, KV. 456Listen to a performance of the concerto below, performed by the reverent Murray Perahia:


Israeli virtuosic sensation Itzhak Perlman – the modern era’s pre-eminent master of the violin, was destined for musical infamy – in spite of all odds that threatened to stack themselves against him...

Perlman performs on his trusty violin
Perlman, born in 1945 in Tel Aviv, would display an impressive sense of musical acuity almost from the moment he was born. By the age of three, the young violinist (who had taken up the instrument on a toy fiddle after hearing a classical music performance over the radio airwaves) was making a steady effort to place himself within his local Conservatoire (he was rejected for being “too small” to properly hold a violin). Undeterred, young Perlman continued to practice on his toy fiddle until he was old enough – and “big” enough - to test out his finely manicured skills on a real, full-sized violin.

Tragedy would strike the Perlman family in 1949 when Perlman became stricken with the highly infectious Polio virus (just six years shy of the introduction of the world’s first inactivated polio vaccine), rendering the young boy (Perlman was only 4 when he contacted the virus) permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

If polio threatened to rob young Itzhak from a promising career in music, it should have asked the young violinist first. Scoffing in the face of disability, Perlman persisted – with even more vigor – his mastering of the violin.

Today, Perlman – whose mobility is aided by crutches (and sometimes, an electric scooter), and who performs whilst sitting down - is an iconic sensation the world over and internationally regarded as the pre-eminent virtuoso of the violin.

Enjoy below an Unraveling Musical Myths personal favorite recording: Niccolo Paganini's famously frenzied 24 Caprices, masterfully performed by maestro Perlman (Warner/EMI Classics):


Renowned conductor Jeffrey Tate continues to bring much awareness to the little known birth defect known as Spina Bifida – a so-called “Neural tube birth defect (NTD)” that occurs during a woman’s initial first four weeks of pregnancy. Spina Bifida is caused by the spinal column failing to properly fuse around the spinal cord.

Tate, who also suffers from kyphosis – a condition in which the spine takes on an exaggerated forward curvature, was given a grim notice of a shortened life expenditure early on in life by physicians caring for him, who told a young Tate that he “would be lucky to be alive” by the age of 50.

Tate, now 71, is a living testament to the will to triumph over all odds. Not only does the iconic English conductor possess an impressive knowledge of the human body (he trained as an eye specialist before dedicating himself to music), he is also very much beloved by the classical music industries’ most revered conductors, composers and musicians – not forsaking his massive fan base around the world.

The most flawless performance of Jupiter (molto allegro) this side of paradise: Jeffrey Tate leads the English Chamber Orchestra in a jaw-dropping rendition of Mozart's autumnal orchestral work: his Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551:


Du Pré and her beloved cello
The late 20th century cellist Jacqueline du Pré is best known to classical music fans through her highly emotive interpretation of Elgar’s deeply poetic Cello Concerto, and for being the other half of a musical power couple in her marriage to – and frequent collaboration with – husband, conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim.

Du Pré’s much lauded treatment of Elgar’s magnum opus would launch the young musician onto the world stage – and Jacqueline “Jackie” as she was lovingly dubbed by her peers and by the press – dominated that stage – frequently over shining the bright cast of the glaring spotlight in which she so often basked.

It would be much to the dismay of family and fans – and indeed Du Pré herself – when a then 26-year-old Mrs. Barenboim first began to notice the onset of cramping and paralysis in her hands in the early 1970’s. After initially attributing the affliction to being over stressed and overworked, the master cellist du Pré would eventually succumb to a life-long state of severe depression after she learned conclusively by the ominous words of the physician who had recently examined her that she was an unwitting victim of the “demyelinating disease” Multiple Sclerosis (when the "immune system attacks the protective sheath (myelin) that covers nerve fibers and causes communication problems between [the] brain and the rest of [the] body" [-Mayo Clinic] ) leading to the potential – and irreversible - deterioration of the nerves themselves.

By the mid-1970’s, Jacqueline was confined to her bed, and to a wheelchair - having succumbed to an almost full body paralysis. Barenboim had also left her for another woman.

Ms. Du Pré, however, did not spend her final days in a stoic state of begrudgery, much less in vain – all whilst battling through her unimaginable physical and mental torment, the former world-renowned cellist took up the practice of teaching music to prospective cellists – in a noble effort to pass the baton to the rising stars of the coming generation.

Her legacy as the finest cellist ever to have performed Elgar's prized Cello Concerto remains unsurpassed.

Ms. Du Pré performs Elgar's famous cello concerto below in a career defining performance with the London Philharmonic under maestro Barenboim in 1967. Although Jacqueline and her beau David would receive much recognition from this and subsequent performances of Elgar's magnum opus, "Jackie" would never again quite reach the height of critical notoriety she had obtained in 1965, when, at the tender age of 20, she recorded Elgar's Concerto for EMI Records with the London Symphony Orchestra under maestro Sir John Barbirolli. That release would become the iconic recording that helped skyrocket young Jacqueline toward international acclaim:


Quasthoff, right, performs alongside maestro Barenboim in a
performance of Franz Schubert's Winterreise songcycle.
German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff is undoubtedly (at least according to the author of this blog) the modern world’s leading bass-baritone.

With all of the vocal power and prowess of a Russian basso profundo, Quasthoff’s thunderous bass-baritone voice can often be heard echoing though the halls of prestigious music theaters around the globe.

The 57-year-old Hildesheim native was born into this world on November 9, 1959 - with a severe case of birth defects: the result of the highly controversial anti-nausea drug Thalidomide then prescribed by OBGYN’s and general physicians to pregnant women suffering from morning sickness.

By the time Thalidomide’s adverse effects became common knowledge, Quasthoff was already developing to full term in utero. He would be born with a condition known as phocomelia – which effects the natural growth and formation of the upper extremities - and would suffer the irreversible effects of the drug on the natural development of bones, rendering his growth to be permanently stunted.

Quasthoff – who is considered among modern music critics to be the go-to interpreter of the works of Schubert and Schumann, and indeed an overall vocal force to be reckoned with, currently stands at just 1.34 m tall (4' 4¾") - a small and otherwise irrelevant factor in the making of one of modern classical music's most towering figures and practitioners of the finer arts.

Thomas Quasthoff performs "Auf dem Flusse" from Schubert's Winterreise:


Wittgenstein and his piano. The one-armed pianist can be heard performing
Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand here.
Austrian concert pianist and WWI veteran Paul Wittgenstein - older brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein – famously commissioned multiple piano concerti from some of Europe’s leading composers of classical music during the latter part of the 20th century.

Wittgenstein, who suffered the amputation of his right arm after falling victim to an attack by Russians during the assault on Ukraine during which he was shot in the elbow, would recuperate as a Prisoner of War at a camp in Omsk in Siberia. It was here that an optimistic Paul first proposed the idea of commissioning works for the piano – to be scored for only the left hand – when he penned a now infamous letter to his old music professor, Josef Labor – who had indicated that he was already working on such a project.

By the time WWI drew to a close, Wittgenstein had already approached several more composers of much larger influence to create works for the left hand in his honor. The brave veteran was met with much enthusiasm – just a few of the composers who would pen works for Wittgenstein: Benjamin Britten, Erich Korngold, Sergei Prokofiev, Richard Strauss – and, most famously – French composer Maurice Ravel, who composed his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (listen to a performance of this work below) – exclusively for the former POW.

Did You Know?

...that the famed German composer Robert Schumann really intended to be a pianist? A life in composition came as a last resort for the musically inclined Robert, who, like much of 1830’s musical Europe, fell under the mesmerizing spell of piano virtuosi – chiefly the Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt and the Polish “Frenchman” Frédéric Chopin.

Young Schumann wanted to be just like these masters of the keyboard – even going so far as to invent a curious device to help hold his fingers aloft whilst practicing on the instrument (and which would help the budding musician to further hone his fingering skills) which he had constructed from a cigar box and some wire.

The invention had the direct reverse effect – permanently damaging two fingers on Schumann’s right hand - rendering a career as a traveling piano virtuoso virtually impossible for the composer-in-the-making.

It wouldn't have mattered anyway - Schumann would accomplish his childhood dream of musical infamy as one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era, becoming a heroic figure not only for his adoring fans in his native Germany - but indeed the world over.

Herr Schumann's vast catalogue of work remains, to this day, one of Western Classical Music's most frequently performed and recorded repertoires.


To learn more about composers affected by disabilities - of a psychological nature - you needn't look any further than my article on SUICIDES, SCHIZOPHRENIA AND SYPHILITICS, found right here at Unraveling Musical Myths.


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