The physiological consequences of too much music

An overactive musical life of too many concerts has consequences. For Berlin musicians in 1907, especially soloists who routinely performed three concertos in a row and gave multiple concerts in the major cities every year, performance-related injuries must have been inevitable. I was interested, therefore, when I ran across a pamphlet from 1904 on “Überanstrengung beim schreiben und musizieren,” by Professor Doctor Isidor Zabludowski, head of the “Massageanstalt” at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Berlin.1Leipzig: G. Thieme, 1904; on Hathitrust: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.32044080790850. Originally appeared in the Zeitschrift für diätetische und physikalische Therapie (1903/1904).
I must say I have doubts about this Massage Institute and Dr. Zabludowski’s qualifications, despite the academic affiliation. His scholarly sources consist of his other publications, his writing favors the overblown, wordy approach, and his terminology is questionable. He seems to take great delight in repeating his name for the phenomenon under consideration, “Überanstrengungserscheinungen.” The first sentence, for instance, sets the ponderous tone:

Die Überanstrengungserscheinungen beim Schreiben und Musizieren, und zwar die Müdigkeit bezw. der Schmerz in der Hand nach längerem Schreiben oder Spielen, verbunden mit mehr oder weniger Unlustgefühl, ist wohl vielen aus eigener Erfahrung bekannt. (3)

I expected some kind of description of massage/physical therapy as rehabilitation, and perhaps a recognition of the ergonomics of writing by hand. However, massage is barely mentioned. The first section of the 23-page pamphlet considers the different categories of writers, from the society lady to the stenographer, and suggests different shapes and sizes of pens and attachments to use with pencils.(See a dubious example above.)2He also suggests using the typewriter, which can be “practiced” as a physical therapy by those who are not exclusively typists.

His section on music is divided into those who suffer from making too much music and those who listen too much to music. The first category is dealt with by a short discussion of developments in the shape of keyboards and arrangements of the keys that are more in keeping with the physiology of human hands.3The Jankó-Klavier, which had a following at the end of the nineteenth century, arranges the keys in three registers, as in an organ, so that the hands can move more in a forward and back motion rather than sideways. Dr. Zabludowski’s prescription for both pianists and violinists is to not practice too much and to avoid really difficult works, such as Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy and Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy.
Then there is the problem of hearing too much music, which can take the form of “involuntary listening.”

The question of overtaxing (Überanstrengung) involuntary listeners of musical exertions should not go completely unmentioned in this chapter on overtaxing music-making. What requires no further discussion is that music-making fanatics overtax their forced listeners’ auditory nerves leading to the central organ of the brain, and at longer durations can make those affected nervous.4“Die Frage der Überanstrengung der unfreiwilligen Hörerschaft musikalischer Exerzitien dürfte im Kapitel Überanstrengung beim Musizieren nicht ganz unberührt zu lassen sein. Dass musikübende Fanatiker die Gehörnerven ihrer gezwungenen Hörer bis in’s Zentralorgan, das Gehirn, hinein überanstrengen und die Betreffenden bei längerer Dauer der Einwirkung nervös machen können, bedarf keiner weiteren Erörterung.” (21)

“Forced listening” can be treated with something that took me a moment to realize was earplugs: “Wir können in bezüglichen Fällen dem Gebräuche des Antiphon benannten Instrumentes, bestehend aus Kügelchen, welche in jeden der beiden äusseren Gehörgänge hineingebracht werden und so die Ohren gegen Schalleindrücke abschliessen.” (22)

The rest of the pamphlet is a rant about the length of Wagner’s operas. He makes the point that the Bayreuth Festival is an occasion for the musically experienced, who have extensive preparation and nothing else on their minds. But it is completely different for the average man on the street:

This person is accustomed to looking in music for a diversion from his job’s duties, which have become too much at the end of the day, or from the misery of daily life. If we take a look at someone attending the theater where Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ is being performed, we can not put off the impression that when the time gets close to midnight, the feeling of wellbeing is not intensifying; on the contrary, for many an exhaustion is observable, a kind of physical and intellectual weariness; added to that, in not a few there is a melancholy feeling brought about through compassion for the soloists, whose stylistic means and energy have been called upon to the extreme.5“Diese sucht in der Musik für gewöhnlich eine Ablenkung von der Berufstätigkeit, deren sie am Tagesschlusse überdrüssig geworden, oder von den Miseren des alltäglichen Lebens. Fassen wir die Theaterbesucher bei der Aufführung von Wagners ‘Tristan und Isolde’ ins Auge, so können wir uns des Eindrucks nicht erwehren, dass, wenn die Zeit sich der Mitternachtsstunde nähert, bei vielen das Gefühl des Wohlbefindens sich nicht steigert; im Gegenteil, es macht sich bei ihnen eine Erschöpfung, eine Art von körperlicher und geistiger Abspannung bemerkbar; bei nicht wenigen stellt sich noch dazu ein wehmütiges Gefühl ein, bedingt durch die Mitleidempfindung für die Solisten, deren Stilmittel und Energie aus äusserste in Anspruch genommen werden.” (23)

Not only Tristan und Isolde, but also Meistersinger is called out for excessive length:

At the end of the nigh-on two-hours’-duration third act of Meistersinger, many cannot but have sympathy for the entire cast. For a considerable part of those at the theater the tensing of the nerves for the first two-thirds of the evening is followed by a slackening, manifested in those concerned by no longer following the developments on stage.The acoustic and optical stimulation no longer reaches their grey matter (“Hirnrinde”), so is not brought to sharp perception, but rather fades subcortically (“subcortical”). Such theatergoers then find themselves in a situation of half-sleep or in a struggle with the sleep threatening to overcome them. With this last category of listening, in a certain sense a self-acting escape mechanism is enacted, which protects from greater tension, but the artist preaches in the wilderness.6“Gegen Ende des nahezu zwei Stunden dauernden dritten Aktes der Meistersinger bleibt bei nicht wenigen das Mitgefühl für das ganze ausübende Künstlerpersonal nicht aus. Bei einem nicht geringen Teile des Theaterpublikums folgt auf die Nervenanspannung der ersten zwei Dritteile des Theaterabends eine Erschlaffung, welche sich darin äussert, dass die Betreffenden den Vorgängen auf der Buhne nicht mehr folgen. Die akustischen und optischen Reize erreichen nicht mehr ihre Hirnrinde, kommen somit nicht zur scharfen Perzeption, sondern verhallen subcortical. Solche Theaterbesucher befinden sich dann in einem Zustande von Halbschlaf oder auch in einem Kampfe mit dem sie zu übermannen drohenden Schlafe. Bei der letzten Kategorie von Hörern ist in gewissem Sinne ein selbsttätiges Ventil angelegt, welches vor grösserer Anspannung schützt, der Künstler aber predigt in der Wüste.” (23) N. B. This is the last sentence of the pamphlet!

Dr. Zabludowski called for an across-the-board cut in the length of all musical and theater productions. In my post on the three-concerto concert, I attributed this surfeit of virtuosity in part to rivalries among pianists who had been students of Liszt, who tried to outdo each other in the scale of their performances. But Dr. Zabludowski’s rant reminds me that it was Wagner above all who was responsible for the “maximalist” trend of too much everything.

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2 thoughts on “The physiological consequences of too much music

  1. The rant really clarifies the problem of both decadence in Wagner but also the stupendous monumentalism of the later operas…. I have to admit I find myself a bit fatigued by the last act of Meistersinger…we should implement stretch times between scenes!

  2. Yes, the concept of “super size me” for sure originates with Wagner, or was it Meyerbeer?

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