Tuesday, 22 February 2011
However, when taken in the pure and unadulterated sense of the word, there have been some groundbreaking artists who merit the description. Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Beethoven, Mozart can all be accurately described as visionary: they are artists and musicians who have produced far-sighted, innovative pieces of work, which have immeasurably impacted the way we perceive music, art and the world in general.
Frederick Chopin, despite being one of the aforementioned pioneering musicians, has been called ‘visionary’ for entirely different reasons. During his short life, the Polish composer, famous for his piano sonatas,
It was widely believed at the time that these episodes were a by-product of the composer’s immense musical ability. This was a conviction perpetuated by Sand, who wrote that the visions were “manifestations of a genius full of sentiment and expression.” During the early 19th century, very little was known about what we now refer to as neuroscience, so it is hardly surprising such a conclusion was reached, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to the modern observer.
So, with the benefit of hindsight and the advance of medical science, can we discover the cause of Chopin’s terrifying hallucinations? A recent study by a team of Spanish doctors has come up with a convincing theory – it seems very likely that the composer suffered from a form of epilepsy, temporal lobe epilepsy to be exact. The reasons for this diagnosis are numerous: the type of hallucinations described by Chopin are common with this form of epilepsy; the composer suffered bouts of severe melancholy, which is also a symptom of this condition; and perhaps most significantly, Chopin did not hear voices, which rules out schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and most other forms of psychosis.
Unfortunately, Chopin’s medical problems were not confined to hallucinations – his short life was marked by ill-health. From an early age, he suffered from a variety of respiratory problems which were to plague him all his life. He died in 1849, at the age of 39, from some form of pulmonary disease, or possibly from cystic fibrosis. It was, nevertheless, his infamous visions which still ignite the interest of medical experts today. We may have discovered the reasons behind his legendary hallucinations, but we will never know if they in any way impacted the nature of, or the development of, his astounding musical ability.