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The Lady with the Lamp

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This week, we updated our first aid kits with a playlist about musical medicine, celebrating the 200th birthday of the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale. 

Bach, Johann Sebastian (1685–1750) MASS IN B MINOR: Gloria In the last few years of his life, Johann Sebastian Bach’s steadily deteriorating eyesight led him to seek assistance from an ocular surgeon, the English eye specialist John Taylor. Bach underwent his first eye operation in March 1750, and another during the second week of April. After this second operation, his health declined quickly, and he passed away at his home on the evening of July 28th, after suffering a stroke. An incredibly industrious composer throughout his life, Bach continued to work almost right up until his death. The manuscript of the B minor Mass contains some of the last known examples of Bach’s handwriting. Another equally prolific composer, GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL, visited the same English eye doctor just a few years later, hoping to stave off his impending blindness. However, as in Bach's case, the operation was ultimately unsuccessful. 

Rachmaninoff, Sergei (1873–1943) PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2 IN C MINOR, OP. 18: Moderato; Allegro Right around the turn of the 20th century, Sergei Rachmaninoff was in a rut. His first symphony received some bad press, and when he went to visit and play for one of his idol’s, Leo Tolstoy, Tolstoy simply responded “tell me, does anybody need music like that?” Harsh. All of this sunk the composer into a mixture of writers’ block and depression for several years, unable to complete his second piano concerto. Seemingly at the end of his rope, Rachmaninoff went to see Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who happened to specialized in HYPNOSIS. Now, some say that Dahl’s hypnotherapy cured Rachmaninoff’s writers’ block; other say that simple conversations with the doctor about music and art had put Rachmaninoff in a better mood. Regardless, Rachmaninoff returned to composition with this concerto, which he later dedicated to Dr. Dahl.

Donizetti, Gaetano (1797–1848) L’ELISIR D’AMORE (THE ELIXIR OF LOVE): Dulcamara’s Aria  Love potions have popped up throughout the centuries both in literature and on stage. In Donizetti’s comic opera The Elixir of Love, a traveling quack of a doctor named Dulcamara comes to a small Sicilian town and claims to have the recipe for the legendary love potion of TRISTAN AND ISOLDE. Heck, he even has little bottles of it up for sale! The loveable but simple-minded hero Nemorino, desperate to get the girl of his dreams, falls for this doctor’s antics and buys a bottle of the magical concoction. Truth is, though, this “potion” is nothing more than old Bordeaux wine! Various mix-ups and hijinks ensue until Nemorino finally gets the girl and the Doctor Dulcamara leaves town as a rich man from his sales of “The Elixir of Love”! So much for the Hippocratic oath.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus (1756–1791) COSÌ FAN TUTTE: Overture Mozart likely saw all manner of bizarre medical practices during his childhood travels around Europe. Chief among these was the MAGNET THERAPY craze in Vienna. The practice was established by German physician Franz Mesmer, who theorized that a natural energy flowed between inanimate objects and living things. With the aid of magnets and the proper technique, he thought he could manipulate energy between people to cure illnesses. Mesmer prospered from a large following of wealthy patients who believed he had made a great discovery. He became a serious patron of the arts, bringing the young Mozart to his summer in Vienna for private concerts. Mozart later parodied Mesmer in his opera COSI FAN TUTTE. In the finale of Act 1, the housemaid Despina appears disguised as a doctor and carrying a large magnet. She waves the magnet over two soldiers who have pretended to commit suicide and they appear to spring back to life.  

Borodin, Alexander (1833–1887) POLOVTSIAN DANCES: Excerpts Famous for its set of “Polovtsian Dances,” “Prince Igor” is set during the medieval period in which the growing Russian empire battles the Polovsty (poh-LOW-chee) a nomadic Central Asian tribe. After Borodin’s death in 1887, the opera was completed by members of the Mighty Five. Borodin also lived a second life, and was equally inventive in this other career. His day job was as a chemist at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg. Most of Borodin’s research was in the field of organic chemistry, especially in the branch known as “organic synthesis,” that is, bonding organic compounds together. One of his most notable achievements was the invention (or really discovery) of the ALDOL REACTION. The aldol reaction bonds the carbon atoms of simple organic molecules to each other, creating more complex organic compounds. 

Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) O BEATA INFANTIA & DOMINE, DOMINUS NOSTER Around the turn of the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen began having visions and giving prophecies at a very young age, leading her parents to send her off to a life as a nun, where she would eventually become an abbess of several monasteries. Hildegard is best known for her compositions of liturgical music, becoming one of history's earliest female composers, however she was also a very accomplished healer and herbalist, drawing from her experience tending to monastic gardens and working in an infirmary. She would eventually write two treatises on medicine, The Physica, which catalogues the different healing properties of plants, stones, and animals, and the Causae et Curae, which details the human body and its relation to the natural world, along with explanations for causes and cures of common diseases.

Gounod, Charles (1818–1893) LE MÉDECIN MALGRÉ LUI: Ouverture One of the early comic operas by Charles Gounod, Le Médecin Malgré Lui or The Doctor In Spite of Himself was quite successful in its day, praised by Hector Berlioz as among his best work. It was based on the 17th-century satire of French medicine by the famed playwright MOLIÈRE. The doctor of the work’s title is not a doctor at all but rather a drunken woodcutter, who’s forced to pretend he’s a doctor by his grudge-holding wife. His first patient is a lovesick heiress. The “doctor” doesn’t know how to help, so he feigns some nonsense incantations and gives her the only medicine a drunken woodcutter knows: bread dipped in wine. When he sees how much he’s paid for his duties, he decides to take up the doctoring business full-time. As he notes: a dead man has never once complained about a doctor’s poor work!

Leslie Bricusse (b. 1931) and Lionel Newman (1916-1989) DOCTOR DOLITTLE (1967) Title Sequence In 1920, a civil engineer named Hugh Lofting began a series of children’s books about an English physician who shuns human patients in favor of animals, with whom he has learned to communicate and speak plainly. The Story of Dr. Dolittle was later adapted into several stage musicals and films, including a 1967 film starring Rex Harrison and Samantha Eggar. While the scope of this movie is impressive, it’s production was notoriously troubled with numerous setbacks. There was the difficulty of controlling over a thousand live animals on set in uncooperative weather, and even part of the set was bombed by a disgruntled army officer who thought the production was ruining the English countryside. The lush soundtrack was written and orchestrated by Leslie Bricusse, who would later compose music for another well-known adaptation of children’s literature with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in 1971.

Elizabeth Fraser (b. 1963) TEARDROP The English electronic music group Massive Attack released their third studio album titled Mezzanine in 1998. The album is a departure from their previous material, exploring more melancholy themes than the jazzy and laidback sampling of their early work. Though creative differences over the album almost split the band, it became their most commercially successful release and spawned four singles including “Teardrop,” which features lyrics and vocals by the Scottish singer Elizabeth Fraser. “Teardrop” has been used in many tv shows and movies, including as the opening theme for the medical drama “House.” Dr. Gregory House is a misanthropic medical genius who leads a team of diagnosticians in a New Jersey hospital. The Massive Attack song was selected because its tempo was thought to imitate the human heart.  

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