Music and Disease

When one is the parent of a small child it is well-known one catches every bug going, as their own uninitiated immune systems succumb to one cold after another which they can transmit, often with more serious diseases mixed in. In my case it was chickenpox that got me unexpectedly in my 30’s during a Cambridge epidemic, having escaped it throughout my childhood. I was given the interesting instruction to invite any students in my lectures who hadn’t had the disease to move to the back of the lecture theatre to reduce the chance of infection but the medical view was that I should just lecture through. I feel as if moving into a College has had rather the same effect on me as parenting a small child. It would appear that I’m being exposed to a greater density of germs than my body is able to cope with. This winter I’ve had more colds than in the last several years put together.

The trouble is that the last one has hit me really hard. Apologies to the poor first year students (400+ of them) who have had to cope with a lecturer with very sub-standard energy lectures who spluttered and coughed through teaching them elementary quantum mechanics. I have never previously succumbed to having to take a taxi across Cambridge to lecture because cycling was beyond me, or lectured sitting down, both of which I had to resort to in the last couple of weeks. Even worse, when not obliged to be doing something actively it has been really hard to focus on the email mountain, read thesis chapters, write references or respond to referee comments. The more I failed to do, the worse I felt; post-viral depression – of a mild kind – has set in.

This weekend, when I should have been writing an uplifting and inspiring after-dinner speech, I was instead staring fruitlessly at the computer screen and listening to Radio 3 when I heard something that caught me unawares and which made a big impact on me in my slightly fragile state. It was a performance of Bach’s double violin concerto played by Simon Standage and Michaela Comberti. Micaela, always known as Mica, was a brilliant violinist at my school who died tragically young of cancer at 50 a decade ago. As soon as she turned up at the school she stood out as exceptional and was a key part in the revival of music that flourished at the school while I was there and I believe long after. Listening to this recording it all came flooding back.

Music was such an integral part of my later school years; Mica was at the heart of it. I was a bad but much-needed viola player and got exposed to brilliant opportunities. She was the star violinist, the leader of a fairly thin orchestra with a random collection of instruments mainly wind and strings. Having been learning viola for a mere five terms I was roped into the Chamber Orchestra to play in Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto so that she had a platform for her gifts. I remember being dazzled by the music, although what seemed to me to be most amazing of all was the harpsichord cadenza in the first movement played by a young teacher (Jenny Purvis). Later I played Schubert’s stunning String Quintet; all the other four musicians (including Mica) went on to professional musical careers of one sort or another and we were coached by a professional double bass player as I recall. I kept trying to walk away because I felt I let them down; they wouldn’t let me leave because I was better than nothing, literally. Mica played a leading role in the National Youth Orchestra, whereas my mark was the (not inconsiderable but nevertheless much smaller fry) London Schools’ Symphony Orchestra – they were also short of viola players – where I got to know her brother Sebastian, a cellist a couple of years younger than me who also moved on to a professional career.

I often wonder why music mattered so much to me then and why, still, getting on for 50 years on those experiences continue to feel so precious and valuable. I think in part it was because I was exposed to such musical excellence and wonderful opportunities (playing in both the Royal Festival Hall and the Berliner Philharmonie with the LSSO , as well as the less exalted Harwich Pier Pavilion and other random venues) but also because it was the counterpart to the cerebral physics and maths that otherwise absorbed me during those years. Music – both orchestral and choral, there was always something of a stand-off with the wonderful music master Peter Morgan because I wanted to sing the great choral works we did and not lurk in the orchestra­ – provided me with companionship and a sense of shared goals that was lacking in science A levels. Perhaps also it gave me a chance to appreciate my limits in a field where I was so much not the best but tolerated because of the unusual instrument I played.

All this flashed through my mind as I listened to Mica once again, her brilliance cut off by disease at an intolerably early age. Music has remained with me for much of my life, albeit it must be many years since I picked up my viola or opened my mouth to sing more than a Christmas carol or a hymn at a funeral. I still feel, though, that those few years when I was originally exposed to the classical canon at first hand and could participate in the living organism that is a full-scale choir or orchestra, were hugely important for my future well-being. The impressions music made on me have endured far more viscerally than just about any other activity in my teens or early adult life. Perhaps it is because, as with listening to Mica play, it is easy to recall the excitement a performance engendered when the music is encountered again: Mozart’s Requiem in a massed choir of around 500 schoolgirls and a handful of boys (or so it seemed) under David Willcock‘s baton; or the exhaustion one felt upon reaching the end of Tchaikowsky’s 6th symphony, knowing his death was just round the corner, as it were.

So much of this world is lost to our current school children, where music is a luxury for the well-heeled middle class not something provided for free for the many (the kind State paid for me to have lessons on viola, piano and ultimately in harmony too as I moved up through the instrumental grades.) No more. I may never for one moment regret I did not choose to pursue a musical career with my minimal talent, but it is a tragedy that the joy I was offered on a plate in state schools in the 1960’s is gone, apparently forever.



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6 Responses to Music and Disease

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    If you haven’t already watched it, then Simon Rattle: The Making of a Maestro is on BBC iPlayer. Also broadcasts of him with the Berlin Philharmonic, playing Sibelius symphonies.

  2. Brigitte says:

    And despite all this you still managed to write a blog post. And a moving one at that!! I hope that spring is in the air soon and the cold season will be over soonish….

  3. Mark Seow says:

    Thank you for this post! Last week I won the Mica Comberti Bach Prize at the Royal Academy of Music, and knew none of her biography. This was wonderful and inspirational to read, thank you.

    • Congratulations! And what a coincidence. Mica was an amazing inspiration to us fellow teenagers and I’m glad her name lives on. I think there are plenty of recordings of her work, particularly early music. I remember coming across a performance of the Mendelssohn octet that had her, her brother (on cello) and another cellist from the school, Jose Horder. I found it strange to come across this in a shop just accidentally.

      • Mark Seow says:

        Such a coincidence! Especially since I graduated from Girton a couple of years ago! The world is a tangled place indeed.

  4. Ursula Martin says:

    Dear Athene, A lovely post, but when sick please do take sick leave…. and I hope you feel better soon. Ursula

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