Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Eyes of Bach and Handel

This essay was originally written for the  internet website, Only Opera  (

George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach were two towering figures of the Baroque. Coincidently, they shared the same birth year, 1685, were both born in Germany, and only a month apart. Handel’s Messiah is an operatic oratorio, like his operas Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda and Alcina. Johann Sebastian Bach’s b minor Mass is a grand and operatic work of depth, breadth, texture and complexity. But something else united these two Baroque masters. That other bond between these two musical giants was that they both suffered visual loss at the end of their lives, possibly cataracts, and both may have had eye surgery by the same charlatan surgeon who went by the name, The Chevalier John Taylor.
It is the following excerpt from the autobiography of the Chevalier John Taylor that has catalyzed this essay on Bach and Handel and their failing eyesight:

“I have, at Leipsick (Leipzig), seen a celebrated master of music, who had already arrived to his 88th year, and who received his sight by my hands; it is with this very man that the famous Handel was first educated, and with whom I once thought to have had the same success, having all circumstances in his favour, motions of the pupil, and light, &c, but upon drawing the curtain, we found the bottom defective, from a paralytic disorder.” (ref.1)

The “celebrated master of music” was, of course, Johann Sebastian Bach, who was likely 65 and not "in his 88th" year when Taylor met the composer. Handel was not educated by Bach. The two likely never met, although Bach tried several times, was very fond of Handel’s music, and copied some of it out. Taylor did treat Bach, but it is not as clear whether Taylor operated on Handel, although the last clause in the excerpt above makes this writer think that Taylor may have treated Handel, as we shall see.                                                 
The Chevalier John Taylor was born in 1703, the son of a surgeon of the same name. He studied at St Thomas’ Hospital under Professor William Cheselden.  Taylor decided to specialize in eye diseases, and soon thereafter proclaimed himself an ophthalmiater(a neologism that Taylor  himself coined, to mean  an “eye physician”). He became the self-proclaimed oculist (ophthalmologist) to King George II and the pope. His motto was "in optics, expertissimus!"

The Chevalier John Taylor (1703-1772)
Taylor was an itinerant surgeon, and for the most part, despite his medical training, a charlatan.  He coined the expression, Qui visum visam dator He who gives sight, gives life.He jumbled this correctly written Latin motto into a grammatically garbled, “qui dat videre dat vivere,” and put the quote on the canvas side of his horse-drawn wagon, which was everywhere adorned  with painted eyes, and from which he would bring out the nostrums and elixirs of his charlatan trade and feign to cure the visually impaired.  
Taylor would go from town to town, treating the blind, and if he diagnosed that they had cataracts (a clouding of the crystalline lens with age), he would “couch” the cataracts from patients so afflicted. Then, he would skip town before the almost inevitable consequences of eye surgery at the time (bleeding and infection) came to pass. According to scholarship by Professor Richard Zegers of the University of Amsterdam, the Chevalier Taylor once confessed that when he started practicing in Switzerland after medical school, he “blinded hundreds of patients.” (ref.2) 
Cataract surgery in the 18th century was not the remarkable, world-wide success story that it is today. With incisions smaller than an eighth of an inch, modern-day cataract surgery is a triumph. Cataracts are removed by ultrasonically emulsifying them.  Through the same minute incision, a foldable plastic lens implant is unfolded in the eye to restore and improve eyesight. Cataract surgery is the most commonly performed of all surgeries and, using benefit-risk and outcome metrics, the most successful.
In Taylor’s era, however, there did not exist the finely detailed technology we have now. Back then, oculists waited for cataracts to become mature, or “ripe,” then went inside the eye (without anesthesia!), and, using a small, sharp hook or lance, pushed or depressed (“couched” ) the cataract into the the fluid in the back of the eye called the vitreous humour, and ideally, though not always, out of the pupillary axis, thus allowing light to re-enter. This was now unfocused light which got into the back of the eye and the retina. Thus, the patient still needed glasses (those strong, thick, “coke bottle” glasses) to restore some form of clear vision.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Leipzig in 1685. He became a renowned composer of church and organ music, cantatas and concertos, composing over 1100 works. Apparently, Bach's only infirmity was his vision. 
Bach was said to have had “naturally bad vision… weakened by a lot of study.” (ref.2)
If Bach were nearsighted (myopic), which is likely, it was not very severe, as he was able to sit at the organ for extended periods of time over the course of years and read music without glasses. He also had very narrow eyelids, which has been noted in much of the vetted portraiture (see above).
Because of his failing eyesight, likely due to cataracts, Bach was introduced to the Chevalier John Taylor, who, in 1750, performed two operations on the composer. Bach may have experienced some improvement after the first operation, but it is evident from the newspaper articles of the day, which still exist, that after the second operation (and it is not clear if one or both eyes were operated upon in the second intervention), he became “completely” and bilaterally blind. The adverb “completely” is subject to interpretation, and “complete blindness" to a layperson is not the same thing as “complete” or "total" blindness is to an ophthalmologist. To an ophthalmologist, that would be no light perception.
A few days after the surgery, Bach was not only unable to see, but he became quite ill. He developed what was described as a hitziges Fieber ( a non-specififc term which translates as a “burning fever”). He lingered on for a few months and died on July 28, 1750 at 6:15 PM, at age 66. (ref. 2)
It has been postulated that Bach developed either an eye infection from the surgery, or an increase in intraocular (eye) pressure, and  a subsequent stroke. 
It is not clear that the eye surgery was directly causal to Bach’s demise. As Professor Zegers posits, Bach lived about four months after the eye operation, and an endophthalmitis (an infection of the inner tissues of the eye), if it had gone into the central nervous system to cause a septic meningitis, would not have taken four months to cause a fatal infection, but would have occurred much sooner. (ref.2)
Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Georg Frideric Handel was born in Halle, Germany in 1685. After a wondrous tour of Italy between 1705 and 1709, where he became informed by Italian operatic style, he thereafter settled in England, where he continued his employ under George I, who had preceded him to the island kingdom a few years earlier.
In 1751, at the age of 66, and after four decades of extraordinary success in opera and oratorio, Handel began noticing changes in his eyesight. There is no direct documentation that Handel was seen or cared for by the Chevalier John Taylor, apart from Taylor’s own writings (see above). 
It is difficult to know exactly what specific disorder may have caused Handel’s visual loss. Some scholars insist that Handel had cataracts, because there is evidence that he had these putative cataracts “couched” lanced, pushing them out of the central pupillary axis). 
According to the Chevalier Taylor, he performed these procedures on Handel on several occasions. If this is the case, then Handel’s medical history mimicked J.S. Bach’s. Fortunately for Handel, despite unsuccessful surgery to both eyes, he lived a few more years after the operations.
A closer reading of Handel’s personal correspondence makes it clear, however, that the visual loss he sustained was not only initially monocular, but binocular, and his loss of sight in each eye consecutively, was abrupt.
The rapid loss of sight implied in the correspondence implies that Handel may not have suffered from cataracts, since cataracts do not cause sudden visual loss. Therefore, despite the bombastic pronouncements and rodomontade by the Chevalier Taylor that Handel had "cataracts," it is more likely that he sustained a sudden loss of blood, or “stroke”, to the ophthalmic artery of each eye, from an entity called anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (AION).
In closely reading the excerpt from the Chevalier Taylor's diaries, that last clause gives a clue, ".....but upon drawing the curtain, we found the bottom defective, from a paralytic disorder."
"Upon drawing the curtain" is a metaphor to imply that, "upon removing the cataract" (if it existed), Taylor evidently did find that the "bottom" (or "fundus" the back of the eye, where the retina and optic nerve are) was defective,  "from a paralytic disorder." This could have meant the consequences of sudden blood loss or "stroke."
In those days, the concept of  a stroke to a target tissue or organ was not as clearly understood, although the brilliant English physician William Harvey had made great discoveries in that regard a century earlier, in his monumental Du Motu Cordis (On the Motion of the Heart) of 1628.
A sudden loss of blood ("stroke") of the ophthalmic artery, the major blood vessel serving the front or anterior part or head of the optic nerve, causes the tissue in that crucial location  to die (infarct) from lack of blood flow. AION can be associated with other systemic illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis, and present with headaches, myalgias, arthralgias and anorexia.  Handel's age of 66 years at that time is consistent with case studies of AION, whereas it would be a bit young for someone to have significant visual loss from cataracts. 
It is also of note that AION is more common in those with Scandinavian or German heritage. Handel, born in Germany, fit this demographic risk factor as well. On August 5, 1752, The General Advertiser of London reported: “We hear that George-Frederick Handel, Esq., the celebrated Composer of Musick, was seized a few Days ago with a Paralytick Disorder of the Head, which has deprived him of Sight."
 Statue and Memorial of G.F. Handel  with
"I know my Redeemer Liveth" from Messiah
           by Louis Francois Roubilia         
   Westminister Abbey  unveiled in 1762)
After he lost his vision, Handel's general health inexorably declined through the last eight years of his life. He became more religious, more introspective, and retreated into a cocoon of solitude and silence. Although he still played the organ and acceded to conduct the occasional Messiah, Handel's overall compositional style changed. He went on to complete the oratorio Jephtha in 1752, but that was to be his last work in the genre.  Handel's days as a composer of opera were long past as well; his last opera, Deidamia, premiered in 1741. He died on April 14, 1759, at the age of 74, a justly famous and widely admired cultural icon, having never married. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. He left his estate to his niece, Johanna, and also, as per four separate codicils, to his friends, his servants and several charities.
Posterity has been a most grateful beneficiary of the works of both J.S. Bach and "Mr. Handel." Their rich musical creations are a trove extraordinary in quantity and quality. Despite their visual impairment, Bach and Handel retained a wondrous auditory capacity, through which they conjured and created a sublime musical legacy.

©2014 Vincent P. de Luise MD FACS

1. D.M. Jackson. Bach, Handel and the Chevalier John Taylor, Medical History, 12: 385-393, 1968.

2. R. Zegers, The Eyes of Johann Sebastian Bach, Archives of Ophthalmology, 123: 1427-1430, 2005.


Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Promise Broken? Weaving the threads of Mozart's C Minor Mass

Wolfgang Mozart 
Portrait by his brother-in-law, Joseph Lange

By the end of the 1770s, Wolfgang Mozart (1756 – 1791) had become increasingly restless at being in the cultural purgatory that was Salzburg at the time. He had weathered several contretemps about his employment there under the imperious Archbishop Heironymus Colloredo, and after a celebrated argument and a figurative and literal “kick in the pants,” moved permanently to Vienna in June, 1781. 

As arguably the first freelance musician in history, Mozart frequently sought a reason to compose, whether it was for a commission, a public performance, or an “Akademie” (a subscription concert). While in Salzburg, Mozart had written numerous compositions for the Catholic Church at the request of the Archbishop, but these were mostly formulaic pieces, static in nature. This was as a result of a decree by Emperor Joseph II to "simplify" (read, shorten) the Mass.  Mozart’s efforts in the genre of church music were thus to that point largely simple, brief, muted motets, and missae breves, written for shorter services that were curated to be more “approachable” for parishioners.  

Once out of the employ of the Archbishop, Mozart was freed from any further obligations to write masses.  Yet, in the summer of 1782, for no apparent reason, Mozart started to compose a large setting for a full Mass. A devout Catholic, Mozart had not yet been introduced to masonry, so he was likely still thinking about religious topics as compositions, although never with the same zeal and passion that he felt about opera or concertos. 

On August 4 of that year, and before having even received his own father Leopold’s blessing, Mozart married Constanze Weber, one of the four musically talented daughters of a Mannheim family then living in Vienna. Leopold did not think the Weber family was aristocratic enough, and felt that a spouse would be a ‘distraction” from his son’s composing.

On January 4, 1783, Mozart wrote to his father, promising to compose for him a Mass if he would be allowed to bring his new bride to Salzburg. Mozart wrote that he had begun work on a new Mass which he would perform there, and stated that “as proof that I really made the promise…. the score of half a Mass for which I still have high hopes…. lays half-finished on my desk.”

While this composition may have been yet one more filial obligation by Mozart (as well as a peace offering) to his demanding father, it may also have been a gift of praise for the convalescence of Constanze, who by September, 1782, was pregnant with their first child, and herself quite ill. Yet, despite Mozart’s promise to his father of a complete work, that never occurred. The “promise kept” to his father resulted in the wondrous fragment which we will hear this afternoon: the “Great” Mass in C minor (The Mass K.V. 427).
Mozart worked episodically on the Mass for over a year, yet it was far from completed when it was first performed on October 26, 1783, in Salzburg’s St. Peter’s Abbey, a monastery found in 683 C.E., which was celebrating its 1100th anniversary. 

What has come down to us of this work in Mozart’s hand is a Kyrie and a Gloria, and a Credo which breaks off after the et Incarnatus est.  Mozart only sketched parts of the Sanctus and Benedictus, but he did not put pen to paper for the Agnus Dei.

      Mozart's autograph of the Kyrie of the C Minor Mass

The form of composition of this Mass is a cantata mass of Baroque tradition, in which the Latin text of the liturgy of the Mass is laid out in pieces as a series of separate movements, rather than “through-composed” (music with the liturgical text sung without interruption). It is surmised that Mozart may have interpolated movements from some of his previously composed masses to provide a full setting for this Mass, or that those missing movements were sung as Gregorian plainchant. 

Musicologists have been quick to criticize the Mass as lacking in stylistic cohesion and unity. There are several reasons to support this observation, the most compelling of which was an event of momentous importance that occurred soon after Mozart moved to Vienna: his introduction to the Baron Gottfried van Swieten. 

A wealthy diplomat and government official, van Swieten was also a talented amateur musician, a close friend of C.P.E. Bach and Joseph Haydn, and a passionate admirer of the works of J.S. Bach and Handel. Indeed, van Swieten owned copies of Bach’s b minor Mass and Handel’s Messiah. Mozart quickly became fascinated, and then obsessed,  with the music of these Baroque masters, and began transcribing their works, adding his own ideas in fugue and counterpoint style from their templates. It was as if Mozart had entered a time-warp and began composing in the Baroque vernacular of the early eighteenth century.

Yet, Mozart had for a long time also been drawn to the theater and opera, and it appears that after a few months of wrestling with this “crisis of fugue and counterpoint” he turned back to his true passion, which was to push the boundaries and constraints of Classical Style to their ultimate reaches in the service of his operatic and concerto compositions.

As a result of this conflict, a number of different musical genres figure in the Mass. The two outer movements contain contrapuntal choral fugues in the style of J.S. Bach, there is a Handelian double chorus in the Credo and another reminiscent of Bach in the Domine. Mozart returned to echo Handel in the double dotted figures which abound in the Qui Tollis. The Quoniam, a trio for the two sopranos and tenor, channels Pergolesi. The monumentality of the Mass is also evident in its length, which had he completed it, would have been comparable to Bach’s b minor Mass, and as complex, with choruses in four, five and even at times, in eight parts.

However, Mozart also composed and embedded three full-blown operatic arias in the Mass: the Christe Eleison, where the soprano line dramatically bisects the Kyrie, and two other arias which are in the “Italian style”: the sublime Laudamus te and the otherworldly et incarnatus est. These two arias are so exquisite, refined, and internally complete that they are sometimes performed as stand-alone concert pieces. Both are written for soprano voice, but for sopranos with different Fachs (vocal ranges). The Laudamus te has an extraordinarily wide compass, and is usually sung today by either lyric sopranos or mezzos. In contrast, et incarnatus est has a higher tessitura, contains several C6 notes (“high Cs”), and is sung by coloratura sopranos. Mozart always did not distinguish between soprano voice types, and often challenged his singers; indeed there are several tricky octaval leaps and vocal landmines in these splendid solos. 
 Constanze Weber Mozart
Portrait by her brother-in law Joseph Lange
At the performance, Constanze sang one of these arias and apparently had some difficulty with it, despite being a talented vocalist. Mozart and Constanze left Salzburg for Vienna the day after the performance; Mozart would never again see his birthplace. and the Mass would not be heard for over one hundred years.

The central mystery of the C Minor Mass remains. Why did Mozart never feel the obligation to complete the work? In 1785, he took what he had composed of the Mass, added an aria for soprano and another for tenor, set the music to a different text, and produced the oratorio/cantata, Davidde Penitente (K.V. 469). Apart from the added two arias, the work contains no new material.  

Could Mozart have left the Mass unfinished because, by 1782, he finally made the psychological and physical break from his father, and no longer felt he owed him a completed work? Could Mozart have composed the Mass in joyful celebration of Constanze’s recovery from illness and the birth of their first child, Raimund Leopold in July 1782; and then, with the child’s death two months later, could he have been so disconsolate that he abandoned it? Could the Mass have simply been an exercise in Baroque counterpoint and fugue composition, and once Mozart had figured out that genre (as he figured out everything else, though this genre evidently took even Mozart some time), that it started to bore him, his creative juices flowing back to more contemporary and operatic directions ? Given that the Mass was not written as a commission, and was composed at least in part as “payback to dad,” could Mozart not have felt any need at all to finish the work, as there was no money to be earned from this endeavor? We will never know. 

Given its incomplete state, a number of composers have offered reconstructions. These include efforts by Robert Levin, H.C. Robbins-Landon, Richard Maunder, Franz Beyer, and Georg Alois Schmitt, whose 1901 completion resurrected the work from its unwarranted oblivion and is the setting heard this afternoon. The Schmitt completion provides most of the missing movements, adds a mezzo soprano to the vocal soloists, and provides a duet and a trio. The orchestration is for strings, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, horns and timpani.

With the C Minor Mass, we are left with a fragment and a conundrum, one which will be eternally insoluble. Yet, what Mozart has left to us remains an extraordinary composition. Even though it is incomplete, much like Mozart’s opus ultimum, the Requiem in D Minor, the C Minor Mass is a masterpiece. Not only is it on its own merit one of the greatest of mass settings, it is the bridge that connects J.S. Bach’s magisterial B Minor Mass with Beethoven’s indomitable Missa Solemnis, and it is also a bridge between the human, the mystical and the divine.  Befittingly, the C Minor Mass has been bestowed the surname, “Great,” which honors it in perpetuity as a transcendent summation of the entirety of eighteenth century sacred music, from the hand of music’s greatest genius as he approached the pinnacle of his creative powers. 
                                              *     *     *
Mozart composed the motet, Ave Verum Corpus (K.V. 618), in June, 1791, for the Feast of Corpus Christi and as a gift to his close friend Anton Stoll, organist and choirmaster of the church in Baden bei Wien. It was only the second piece of sacred music written by Mozart since the C Minor Mass eight years earlier. Its forty-six measures have justifiably been called the "most beautiful piece of music ever written." A work of astonishing simplicity and at once, wondrous profundity, Ave Verum Corpus bestows upon the listener a sublime and enduring message of sacred devotion.

The 1819 posthumour portrait of
Mozart by Barbara Kraft
Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde
                                                *     *      *

Mozart’s last three and greatest symphonies, the 39th in Eb major, the 40th in G minor and the 41st in C major, were all written in the space of a few months, in the summer of 1788, in an astonishing burst of creative genius. The symphony in g minor (K.V. 550) is often called the “Great”, to distinguish  it from the so-called “little” g minor symphony (the 25th); they are the only two of Mozart's forty-one full symphonies in a minor key. The first movement of the 40th symphony begins darkly, and curiously not with an introductory theme. Rather, it starts with the exposition, introduced here by the strings, a strategy Mozart would similarly employ in his last piano concerto, the 27th in Bb, K.V. 595 (and that Mendelssohn later used in his second and greatest violin concerto). Another interesting aspect of thi symphony is that Mozart originally composed it without clarinets, and then revised the score to include two clarinets, undoubtedly as homage to his Masonic friends, Johann and Anton and Johann Stadler, who were the finest clarinetists in Vienna at that time.

                                 Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

©  Vincent P. de Luise M.D.  2014