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Drawing some links between opera, history and public health

Now, for some change-of-pace Friday reading – what might opera tell us about public health?

Violinist Anna McMichael reports below that Pinchgut Opera has been uncovering some interesting connections while preparing for Salieri’s opera The Chimney Sweep, which they’re presenting in July at City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney.

***

Anna McMichael writes:

Eighteenth-century composer Salieri has long been infamous as the rival alleged to have poisoned Mozart (readers may have seen the very popular fictional film Amadeus on this subject).

The rumours have no basis in fact; both composers were musical colleagues, simply competing for patronage, as was common at the time.

Feelings seem to have been good between them, other than some healthy collegial rivalry, and Salieri continued to teach Mozart’s son after Mozart’s premature death at the age of 35. 

Pinchgut is seeking to restore Salieri’s good name with their Australian premiere of The Chimney Sweep.

In preparing for these performances, a number of very interesting health links have surfaced; so many links, in fact, we began to wonder if it was worth holding a medical conference on the side!

Firstly, the libretto for this opera was written by the influential physician, Johann Leopold von Auenbrugger.

A public figure in his time, Auenbrugger was famous for developing the technique of Auscultation, the term for listening to the internal sounds of the body to make a diagnosis. Given the importance of listening in music, it was almost certainly a technique that arose from his musical knowledge and ability to differentiate tones quite accurately. 

Auenbrugger’s daughters were well known to have been wonderful musicians and Josef Haydn dedicated a set of six sonatas to the two girls. The name stuck and today those delighted keyboard works are known as the “Auenbrugger” sonatas.

Now to address the Salieri/Mozart rumours. Recorded on Mozart’s death certificate is that he probably died from Hitziges Frieselfieber – a severe fever accompanied by a rash. No hint of misadventure at the hands of Salieri!

This infectious disease was doing the rounds of young men in Vienna during the early winter months of 1791 and caused disfiguring oedema as death approached. Mozart died early in December, somewhat bloated. 

This link to Mozart’s death has only come to light formally via a recent epidemiological study of all the individual death records in Vienna for the period 1790-1793 by a group of Dutch researchers, and published in 2009.

Whether it had anything to do with the unusual weather patterns on the southern fringe of Europe at that time is only speculation. But we certainly know that many infectious diseases are sensitive to temperature and humidity for their onward transmission.

Pinchgut has discovered another health-related factoid in looking into the lives of chimney sweeps in research various aspects of their chosen opera.

Chimney sweeps were the first known group to be afflicted by a site-specific cancer. First documented by England’s Sir Percival Pott (1714 – 1788), it was determined that the soot that collected around the groin in lowly paid sweeps – who had little access to washing facilities at home – caused scrotal cancer. A grim end indeed!

Being a chimney sweep of the 18th century must surely be up there with the top occupationally hazardous professions, also predisposing many to respiratory cancers.

Fortunately for Pinchgut, the chimney sweep of their opera, young Australian tenor Stuart Haycock, has a good set of lungs and can fill a hall with a wonderful tune!

Further viewing & reading:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fx9VH8P_i18

http://www.whonamedit.com/doctor.cfm/309.html.

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/160927.php

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1037746/?page=1

• Anna McMichael is an Australian born violinist who returned to live in Australia in 2010 after 17 years in Europe performing in many of the major ensembles and orchestras.  Ann works behind the scenes for Pinchgut Opera and is Co-Artistic Director of the Tyalgum Music Festival.

 

 

 

 

Comments 2

  1. Jennifer Doggett says:

    Fascinating article – perhaps we should start a series of articles on public health issues in operas, e.g. the consequences of working in a tobacco factory (Carmen) and the spread of TB through sub-standard inner-city housing (La Boheme)!

  2. Tim Senior says:

    Agree, very interesting. I think you are perhaps on to something here – could be even broader than public health issues – mental health crops up frequently in composer’s lives (as does syphilis, strangely). And what about Smetena writing his experience of tinnitus into his first string quartet?
    Incidentally, you may also be interested in this I wrote about music in medical education a few years ago (though I missed the potential of opera for public health.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3481510/

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