Triumph over Adversity – reflections on musical heroism

Triumph over Adversity – reflections on musical heroism

By Neville Cohn


In the countdown to the Athens Olympics later this year, the cream of the world’s young sportspeople are focussing on preparations for this celebration of youth which will be watched by millions as the sporting reputation of each sportsperson’s country hangs in the balance. Amid all this, it is easy to overlook a no-less-significant series of contests that will follow immediately after the Olympics in Greece.

And as anyone who watched the Paralympics that came in the wake of the Sydney Olympics will recall, the competitive edge was as keen there as in the more flamboyantly packaged main game that preceded it. And there are those who believe – as I do – that the grit and focus called for in the Paralympics equal (and, on occasion, may even exceed) the commitment of those participating in the Olympics proper. Here will be gathered amputees, paraplegics, the blind or partially sighted, cerebral palsied and intellectually disabled contestants, all determined to do their very best to demonstrate, as they almost invariably do, that however disadvantaged they may appear to be, they will triumph over adversity.

It is, of course, not only in sporting endeavour that the handicapped can prove their mettle. Consider music – and Beethoven, that most famous of all disabled composers who, after conducting the first performance of his Ninth Symphony, had to be gently turned round by one of the vocal soloists so that he could SEE the applause that he could no longer hear. This symphonic epic is one only of a stream of masterpieces that the stone-deaf master produced while locked in his terrifying prison of silence.

Beethoven was not alone in his affliction. Others suffering hearing impairment include Bedrich Smetana who had tinnitus so severely that it tipped the composer over the edge into madness. The finale of his String Quartet No 1 calls for the first violin to simulate the high-pitched “piercing, whistling sound” that rang almost continually in his ears. And while composing his opera The Devil’s Wall, Smetana remarked despairingly about the “pounding, and intense hissing in the head, as if I were standing under a big waterfall”.

Among the more unusual, indeed bizarre, instances of hearing impairment is that of Percy Wood, an organist who lost his hearing completely after an attack of meningitis. Despite this serious defect, he earned a doctorate in music from Oxford University and thereafter spent many years in a seaside resort preparing candidates for senior music examinations!

No less remarkable is Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie who pursues an international virtuoso career notwithstanding her claims to profound deafness.

Gabriel Faure, too, managed to turn out fine work despite having to contend with greatly reduced hearing in old age as well as lung problems from excessive smoking.

Among hearing-impaired musicians of more recent vintage are George Harrison, Engelbert Humperdinck, Cher, Barbra Streisand and Eric Clapton (as outlined in Sullivan’s Music Trivia).

An even more remarkable instance of rising above the ravages of lung disease is that of Chopin, so ill from tuberculosis that he would cough blood constantly, often, after recitals, leaving the keyboard crimson-stippled. Once, on a visit to friends in Scotland, he was so enfeebled by TB that he had to be carried upstairs to bed. All the while, he continued to produce a stream of piano works that are some of the glories of the keyboard repertoire.

Yet more evidence of functioning creative genius in the face of terrible illness was provided by Hugo Wolf, who would produce streams of superb lieder in bursts of blazing creativity in-between lengthy periods of confusion and despair in mental hospitals. And pianist David Helfgott, whose career was interrupted for long periods due to serious illness – and whose idiosyncratic personality was wonderfully characterised by Geoffrey Rush in the movie Shine – has continued to give recitals and concerto performances worldwide.

There are many instances of the power of the creative impulse overcoming serious handicaps. Delius is a case in point. Paralysed and blind due to syphilis, he would dictate his work note for note to Eric Fenby, his faithful amanuensis. Handel, too, went blind – but that didn’t stop him from giving the organ recitals that drew so many Londoners to his performances. Joaquin Rodrigo of Spain provided another inspiring tale of triumph over adversity. Born blind, he produced a stream of often wonderful music, much of which is now firmly in the standard repertoire.

And no-one who has had the pleasure of listening to pianists Alberto Colombo or Greek-born Themeli, would have said their performances were lacking due to their blindness.

A number of other pianists had successful careers despite the loss of an arm. The most famous is Paul Wittgenstein who was wounded in World War I resulting in the amputation of his right hand. He went on to a brilliant career, a pianist for whom Ravel, Prokofiev, Richard Strauss and Benjamin Britten wrote masterworks for the left hand and orchestra. Otakar Hoffman, also wounded in WWI, defied the odds and embarked on a successful career as a left handed pianist, often performing Janacek’s aptly titled Defiance for piano and chamber ensemble. Gary Graffman, more recently, has continued his virtuoso career although his right hand no longer functions; he often plays Ravel’s Concerto for the left hand.

Oddly, there are few instances of right-handed pianists, the most famous of whom would surely be Cyril Smith who suffered a cerebral haemorrhage while on a concert tour of the then-USSR in 1956. It left him with a paralysed left arm. So he re-invented himself as a one-armed pianist and for years performed successfully in recitals for three hands with his pianist wife Phyllis Sellick.

No less remarkable is the case of famed Belgian-born jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt who was burnt in a caravan fire while growing up in a gypsy settlement. Despite badly mutilated fingers on his left hand, he devised a method of fingering that helped him overcome his handicap to stunning effect as a member of the legendary Hot Club Quintet of France. And celebrated tenor Richard Tauber maintained a flourishing concert career despite experiencing often very severe pain from arthritis, an illness he never divulged to his admiring audiences.

There is also the strange case of Aksel Schiotz, the Danish tenor who was operated on for a brain tumour. He survived but was left severely incapacitated and had painstakingly to learn to speak and sing again from scratch. To his and everyone else’s astonishment, Schiotz discovered that his “new” voice was in the baritone range and with it he launched a second successful career.

Schiotz’s bravery was apparent in other ways. During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, he resolutely refused to sing for the German troops, instead giving recitals in secret for his fellow Danes.

Violinist Yitzhak Perlman has polio in both legs requiring the wearing of steel calipers; it has not got in the way of a brilliant career. Pianist Anne Sher, too, now in a wheel chair as a result of polio, was for years an acclaimed interpreter of Mozart’s piano sonatas, many of which she presented in recitals for the South African Broadcasting Corporation in Cape Town. Yet another polio victim who rose to the heights is ace English clarinettist Alan Hacker. Confined to a wheelchair, he has travelled extensively around the world as principal clarinet in one of the leading London orchestras.

For sheer determination and courage, oboist Leon Goossens’ experiences take a lot of beating. At the peak of his career, he was seriously injured in a car accident in which some of his teeth were broken, his jaw smashed and lip muscles injured: a catastrophe. Yet, with moral support from his famous family – and rare determination – Goossens taught himself to play again, using different facial and lip muscles to get his performances up to their former standard. Hardly less remarkable was the case of pianist Clara Haskil who carved out a distinguished career as pianist despite chronic illness and a severely disabling hunchback. She died, too young, of a fall down an escalator.

Then there is the case of pianist Steven de Groote, winner of the Van Cliburn Competition, who used some of his winnings to purchase a small plane which he piloted about the US until crashing in the Arizona Desert. Surgeons did wonders in patching up his severe injuries and he continued his brilliant career until falling prey to a virus that had infected some of the copious blood transfusions he’d needed during his operation. His death was an immense loss; he left a small but precious legacy of recordings. Nearer to home, was Jane Geeson, principal harpist with the W.A.Symphony Orchestra, who, stricken with terminal cancer, refused to give in to the insidious disease, remaining steadfast at her post and musically articulate almost to the end. Another musician who soldiered on, brilliantly, while battling the leukaemia that would eventually carry him off, was pianist Julius Katchen.

And is there a more poignant instance of soldiering on despite feeling the wind of the wing of the Angel of Death than Bela Bartok, dying of polycythaemia, propped up by pillows, with manuscript sheets held down by a clutter of medicine bottles, as, bar after bar, the composer tried to complete the orchestration of his Piano Concerto No 3 (fifteen bars were left incomplete when paramedics arrived to take him from his cramped, tiny New York apartment to hospital where he died soon after)?

Many other musicians, too numerous to chronicle individually, continue to rise above disabilities of many kinds; they are no less an inspiration than the many who, later this year, will vie for laurels at the Athens Paralympics.

© January 2004

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