Oliver Sacks’ Earliest Musical Memory

Neurologist Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)
Neurologist Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)

 

The English neurologist Oliver Sacks passed away yesterday at the age of 82, following a battle with cancer. Sacks examined the relationship between music and the brain. His research highlighted the surprising ways some Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s patients respond to music. Demonstrating that music occupies more areas of the brain than language, Sacks considered music to be fundamental to humanity. His findings are outlined in his 2007 book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain and the NOVA documentary, Musical Minds

In an interview, Oliver Sacks once talked about his first musical memory. He recalls his brother playing C.P.E Bach’s Solfegietto:

That piece of music was banged into my memory. It’s a piano piece with a very Bach fugal structure. It’s formally intricate, but it also arouses an intense emotion that I can’t really describe. I think it was a rather jolly piece. But my brother died a couple years ago, and now it comes to me as if it were his signature tune, with an elegiac quality. 

Oliver Sacks’ contributions, seemingly driven by a passion and fascination for music, were significant. His use of music to unlock the otherwise bleak world of patients with neurological disorders was inspiring. He attempted to give us a glimpse “under the hood” in an effort to capture the essence of our relationship with a piece of music. But reading Sachs’ description of Solfegietto, it’s easy to sense that, despite his extensive research, the true power and meaning of music remains elusive. Beyond the reach of science, it “can’t really be described.” W.H. Auden’s words come to mind:

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.

Here is C.P.E Bach’s Solfeggio, performed by the Israeli pianist, Tzvi Erez. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) was the second surviving son of J.S. Bach.

Politics and Music: Ferguson Protest at the Saint Louis Symphony

Banners hung from the balcony at Powell Hall during recent protest.
Banners hung from the balcony at Powell Hall during the recent protest.

This past Saturday’s Saint Louis Symphony concert at Powell Hall became the stage for a peaceful protest of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. A performance of Brahms’ German Requiem was delayed briefly as a flash mob throughout the hall began singing,

Justice for Mike Brown is Justice for us All,
Which side are you on, friend? Which side are you on?

The well-sung protest lasted about a minute before the group left the hall on their own. Some members of the audience and orchestra applauded in support of the protesters, who had purchased tickets for the performance. A banner, unfurled from the balcony, urged concertgoers to “Join the Movement.” There seems to be a general consensus that both the protesters and the Saint Louis Symphony handled the situation with dignity and respect.

But the protest also revealed some unfortunate stereotypes (and realities) about symphonic concerts and perceived class and ethnic divisions. In an article in yesterday’s Washington Post, Robert Samuels wrote that protesters “put on sports coats and fancy dresses and sat in on the St. Louis Symphony.” Quotes from one of the organizers of the flash mob suggested that the protest was an attempt to force wealthy members of the community out of their comfort zones towards an acknowledgment of the reality of racism. Both views seem to be built on the assumption that orchestra concerts are little more than social gatherings for wealthy elites. Nothing should be further from the truth. The Brahms Requiem and other masterworks have the power to speak to everyone and should be available to the entire community. At its core, listening to live music is a powerful individual experience, not a superficial social outing.

So what connections exist between politics, emotion and music? Often we assume that composers and performers are expressing their innermost feelings through music. However, music transcends politics, morality and individual expression to reach a reality which can be felt but cannot be put into words. Gustav Mahler described the experience of looking down at the page with the sensation that the music had not come from his intellect, but from somewhere else. In the most transcendent concerts, many musicians have experienced the rare and mysterious sensation of the music playing “through” them. At its essence, music isn’t about individual expression or the emotions of composers. It doesn’t tell stories. It goes beyond all of that, and in attuned moments, we find ourselves connected to a profound reality.

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.

-W.H. Auden

 Deep River

Here is legendary African-American contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993) singing the spiritual, Deep River: