Music for the Sickbed

Using music as medicine goes back to Antiquity and beyond. The Greeks were not alone in recognizing that music was powerful stuff, capable of not only calming the body, but also of rousing it.  Administered inappropriately, or in the wrong dosages, it could do more harm than good. Music needed to be prescribed carefully, applied with great care, its potency taken seriously.

By contrast to the Greeks, ours is an age of rampant musical self-medication.  The typical modern kid, or even young or youngish adult, at home for a sick-day is strapped up to his or her iPod as if it were an aural i.v. pumping non-stop music into the undefended ear at dangerously close range and at dangerously high decibels.  No wonder school absenteeism is on the rise.  Yes, there’s the awful American diet and there’s lack of exercise and all the rest, but let’s not forget the potential benefits and harm of music.  Going with the iPod in the sick bed is like strapping the Hubble Space Telescope to the ear and letting the harmony of the spheres pound in on the soul. Where are children’s health advocates and the scourges of absenteeism and work-place efficiency on this crucial issue?  Flipping through their own playlists, that’s where.

I’d volunteer my own services as chair of a Presidential Committee on Musical Medicine to be joined by Oliver Sacks, Sting, Yo-Yo Ma, Bruce Springsteen, and Lady Gaga  among other luminaries, but the problem is I seem to be as bad as the rest of them. Lay me flat on my back in a sick bed and give me unlimited access to the world of music and I’m like a pill-hoovering python in a pharmacy, with the main generational difference that I don’t do the earbuds or earphones. Instead, I hook up my computer with decent speakers and start in.

I’ve been in bed for the entire week with the flu. Among the four Galenic humors, phlegm (wintery and cold prone) is in the ascendant, and remains so. With this temperamental advisory out of the way, I now offer some highlights of my musical week in a prone position.

Laid low and in a melancholic state, I sought out musical succor of kindred humor—a DVD of Kenzo Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff (1954). So crushing and beautiful is this film that it could either damp down the spirits still further, or make you feel how lucky you are not to have your kids sold into slavery and then be forced to become a courtesan yourself. The grinding, epic quality of the orchestral score by Tamekichi Mochizuki, who among other unforgettable works was responsible for the music of Kurasawa’s Rashomon, imbue the harsh events on screen with an even more tragic resonance.

But it is the song of the mother’s loss of her two young children that is most crushing of all. Heard in terms of Western Music theory, the melody is a minor strain that is at its most bereft when it worries through its upper tetrachord with its characteristic Phrygian inflections. That analysis all sounds duly antique. In the lament, the mother sings  “Life is misery,” and then bitterly recounts her separation from daughter Anju and son Zushio. Is the song composed by Kannahichi Odera, named as one of the authors of the soundtrack in the credits? I would like to know who is responsible for this most devastating piece in the history of film music.

Enslaved at her loom, the daughter hears a new inmate from the island of Sado, where the mother is a prostitute, sing this song and she recognizes her own name. The despair in the melodies grips her with its dread intensity. But she learns from the music that her mother is alive. In the end, though, only the son survives, and makes his way at last to the island of Sado, where he hears reports that the old courtesan was recently swept out to sea by a tsunami.  The son goes to that tragic and remote shore to pay his respects, and as he stands on the beach he hears his name carrying over the sand to that mournful melody. Is it real or a figment of his mind? The melody has been a mirage at other moments in the film: birdsong or the wind. But in this final scene the song is real and he runs to the singer—a blind, crippled woman fanning the flies from seaweed as she sings of her loss.  She at first refuses to believe it is her son, but then they embrace and the camera pans across the beach and to the aged seaweed-gatherer busy at his own survival.

These undiluted doses of melancholy did not improve my condition. But without a trusted musical/medical advisor to guide me I seemed to crave still more of the same medicine, confirming that as many theorists, ancient and modern, have asserted, musical desire reflects the state of mind and body.

After a feverish and sweaty night I turned to the 2003 DVD of John Adams’s opera Death of Klinghoffer, another cheery creation. The movie dramatizes the opera in imaginative and cinematically compelling ways. News reports are inserted between scenes to give historical context, and back stories of the hijackers and hijacked, ranging back to the Holocaust and to the creation of the State of Israel and the expulsion of the Palestinians, are edited into the musico-dramatic onboard action. Filmed mostly on an old-fashioned cruise ship much like the Achille Lauro, the1985 hijacking of the ship ended with the murder of the wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer, sung and acted with ferocious intensity by the creator of the role on stage, Sanford Sylvan.

Many applauded when, in December of 2001, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, withdrew its scheduled performances of choruses from the opera on the grounds that they were inappropriate in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11.  Such simplistic and tendentious views of the piece that claim it is anti-semitic are further routed by Penny Woolcock’s film version, which increases and enriches the historical and personal complexities of the music and its drama. Adam’s broad musical palette, ranging from doo-wop to Arab pop to Satie to too many other styles to name here, resorts to irony only when necessary.  Instead it is the tragedy of Klinghoffer’s murder, heard in the Aria of the Falling Body (Gymnopédie)—coupled with the aestheticized images of the dead Klinghoffer dancing beneath the Mediterranean waves with his wheelchair—and his wife’s subsequent sorrow that remain the longest with the viewer. That The Death of Klinghoffer confronts the essential political and moral questions of our time, and does so with great beauty and without answers is to its credit, and should not be excuse for the facile silencing of this gripping piece.

But it’s definitely not a “feel-better” opera. How about Wagner’s Tannhäuser? Maybe watching and hearing big Germans sing their heads off would be good therapy for someone who’s utterly lost his own voice. Certainly there’s lots of great Wagnerian songs in this work, and the Munich Opera production from 1995 presents the concept of director David Alden, who pulls apart classics such as this with a penetrating mix of humor and seriousness, cloying oppressiveness and weird airiness. Take for example act two, when he quickly deflates the Wagnerian obsessions with German purity by chiseling the words GERMANIA NOSTRA on the crumbling Classical wall at the back of the stage and lobbing fallen Nazi-like eagles into the mise-en-scene to boot. The opening Venusberg scene is full of naked women and alarming sexual prosthetics. And with Waltraud Meier as Venus herself in a gold lamé strapless ball gown, what’s not to like? Tannhäuser himself is sung by René Kollo here well past his 1970s prime. That Tannhäuser would give up an eternity of pleasure on the Venusberg disporting himself with the goddess of love in the person of the bombshell Meier in order to worship at the tomb of the chaste Elisabeth ranks as one of the great conundrums of stage or screen, right up there with why would Hugh Grant waiting pant after Andie McDowell rather than fall into the arms of Kristen Scott Thomas in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Last night, six days into this flu and still without a significant uptick in the humors, I turned to Satyajit Ray’s Music Room from 1958. The financially-ruined grandee sits sipping sherbet and smoking atop his forlorn palace, left behind by the new Indian economy of the 1930s and overtaken by his upstart capitalist of a neighbor. The great landlord squanders his remaining assets on lavish musical entertainments meant to upstage the upstart, himself a self-proclaimed music fan. Or is this really squandering? The music is gone so quickly, but it some enraptures in the moment and long after.  Worth every mortgaged jewel, the landlord seems to say, and I tend to agree.

The scenes in the palace music room must be the best such performances ever captured on screen. Compare the final dance sequence, for example, with the silly set piece of, say, Wanda Landowska on harpsichord in William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (with Laurence Olivier).  How frigid and foolish Western music is made to appear by such a comparison! After a final visual and sonic orgy of music and dance, the landlord gets into his princely riding gear and mounts his white steed and rides off to his glorious death. As I wallow in sweat and self-pity, I see it completely his way.

My flu refuses to loosen its grip(pe), and I wallow through many more DVDs and YouTube paths: Sylvius Leopold Weiss’s ruminations —melancholic, of course—on, lute and Handel’s timeless treatment of noble suicide in Jonathan Miller’s production of Tamerlano.

Clearly I cannot be trusted with the range and power of the musical drugs at my disposal.  I new approach to my cure is demanded: self-administered shock therapy in the form of the Black Eyed Peas’ Super Bowl half-time show on Sunday.  If I can survive that, I can survive anything.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at



DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at