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How Beethoven created healing music out of chronic illness

Features - Classical Music | Chamber

How Beethoven created healing music out of chronic illness

by Rachel Atkinson on April 19, 2017 (April 19, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Chamber | Comment Now
The Fidelio Quartet has teamed up with Crohn’s & Colitis Australia to bring comfort to the sick through Beethoven's quartets.

As anxiety about the destruction of the environment, the disappearance of middle Australia and the lack of faith in democracy threatens to overwhelm us, a little solace is sorely needed. For many, solace can be found in the string quartets of Beethoven. The great German composer lived through times of major political upheaval and wrote quartets throughout his career, documenting a life of torment resulting from a string of medical ailments: deafness, stomach complaints and mental health problems.

The Fidelio Quartet, Melbourne Beethoven Quartet CycleThe Fidelio Quartet: Isin Cakmakcioglu and Robert Macindoe, violins, Rachel Atkinson, cello, Lisa Grosman, viola.

Many are familiar with William Congreve’s observation that music can “tame the savage breast”. I have experienced this on stage during the performances of Beethoven quartets. There are magical moments when the audience surrenders completely to Beethoven’s spirit. You can feel a blanket of intense stillness descend and almost see vapours of contentment rising above the listeners.

When Beethoven writes of triumph or joy, our hearts recognise this, enabling us to source our own pleasure from deep within. When he expresses darker feelings, we identify with him and are consoled and healed a little. Beethoven offers us room to explore our inner world and as counsellor for the soul, he reminds us that our  emotions are shared by many generations before us.

The healing properties of classical music became apparent to me 10 years ago when the Melbourne Symphony embarked on a project with Melbourne Assessment Prison, which has a large opioid substitution programme. A handful of musicians worked with prisoners, composing pieces and performing together. The incarceration of these men created an atmosphere of tragedy, fear and ugliness. However, when I performed a Bach prelude for these young men, the intensity of its beauty was magnified. When a social worker asked a prisoner how the Bach made him feel, he said “it makes me want to change”. 

One Beethoven movement which is particularly relevant to illness and recovery is the slow movement of the Opus 132 String Quartet, written in 1825. Beethoven had been dangerously unwell with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and had been spending some months recovering in Baden. He titles the movement, “song of thanksgiving to God for recovery from an illness, in the Lydian mode”. It is a massive movement, lasting 15 minutes. It has  five sections, with three hymn-like passages interspersed with elated episodes he named “feeling new strength”.At first I found it nearly impossible not to tear up during these moments of blissful release.

For me, Beethoven’s joy was illuminated by the fact that he had vanquished darkness. Above the final hymn-like section, Beethoven wrote, “with the most intimate feeling”. It  builds to a climax of unprecedented ecstacy.

I believe the whole world exists inside these 16 string quartets, and knowing them as I do, I now feel compelled to invite people on the street to share this great art. The Fidelio Quartet's plan is to perform all 16 string quartets over the next three years.

During the rehearsal process for our first concert I become healthily paranoid about intonation and obsessive about balance and vibrato. As players, we have worked together in Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for 20 years, so our solutions to issues of ensemble or articulation feel organic. On occasion, we are slaves to the metronome and sometimes we must be expansive and free. I aim to interact with my colleagues with complete honesty and lack of ego.

We also record ourselves constantly – at times we are devastated, other times, elated. I trust the other three musicians as a child trusts a parent. At every moment, I feel honoured to be this initimate with these works of Beethoven.

In order to draw particular attention to the healing properties of Beethoven’s quartets, The Melbourne Beethoven Quartet Cycle is being presented in collaboration with Crohn’s & Colitis Australia. Beethoven suffered terribly from Ulcerative Colitis. He believed that his deafness was caused by the disease from his bowel reaching up into his ears. The six performances over three years are a way of bringing comfort to IBD sufferers and to raise awareness of the disease for all lovers of Beethoven.


The first concert in the Fidelio Quartet's Melbourne Beethoven Quartet Quartet Cycle is at Melbourne Recital Centre May 16

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