Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Chopin's Visions

These days, ‘visionary’ is an overused word. In a world characterised by an ever-decreasing vocabulary, it is a platitude universally adopted to describe any artistic work of merit. From musicians to artists, to writers and film-makers, anybody deemed to make the grade is thought to be ‘visionary’. Along with ‘genius’, another grossly overused word, ‘visionary’ is a term that has seen its currency greatly devalued of late; it has been reduced to a tired cliché, a banal inanity with little meaning.

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,
became notorious for habitually lapsing in and out of consciousness while composing or playing a piece of music. During these episodes, he experienced vivid visual hallucinations, many of them very frightening. In her memoirs, Chopin's lover, George Sand, told how the hallucinations suffered by the composer were “full of terror and ghosts for him”. In fact, Chopin himself described the nature of his visions in numerous letters to family and friends. In one such letter to George Sand’s daughter, Chopin describes how, when performing a piano sonata in London, he was obliged to abruptly leave the room because he could clearly see creatures crawling out of the piano while he played.

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.

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