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This article by Euna Kwon Brossman was prepared for the January 4,
2006 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Beethoven on the Couch
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky is said to have written: "Without music I
would go insane." In fact, the Russian composer of such beloved works
as Swan Lake and the Pathetique Symphony was chronically depressed, in
part, because of his homosexuality in a world that would have banned
him as an outcast. George Gershwin was considered a hyperactive
troublemaker as a child and in today’s world, most likely would have
been diagnosed with some sort of attention deficit disorder. Robert
Schumann experienced frenetic periods of creative energy, at one time
creating three string quartets within a two-week period. And Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart, the most gifted musical prodigy of all time, may have
suffered from Tourette’s syndrome in addition to the psychological
woes produced by an overbearing father.
While mental illness seems to be over-represented among giants in
every genre – think of Vincent Van Gogh, who cut off his own ear, and
Sylvia Plath, who put her head in the oven to kill herself – there
seems to be a very strong link between music and madness among some of
the world’s greatest composers, according to Richard Kogan, who is in
a particularly unique position to make that observation. The New
York-based psychiatrist and co-director of the Human Sexuality Program
at the Weill-Cornell Medical Center also happens to be a renowned
international concert pianist. The New York Times describes him as "a
superb musician whose playing is eloquent and compelling."
Since 1998 Kogan has bridged the worlds of music and medicine in a
series of lecture-concerts that combine piano recital with medical
analysis. They demonstrate the connection between the psyche of the
musician and his music-making. Kogan is a regularly featured presenter
at such events as the annual meetings of the American Psychiatric
Association and the Aspen Summer Music Festival. For the last three
years he has also brought his talents to the College of New Jersey to
benefit NAMI Mercer, the Mercer County affiliate of the National
Alliance for the Mentally Ill, an organization that serves to educate,
support, and advocate for the mentally ill and their families in
Mercer County. This year, Kogan will present a performance-lecture on
Ludwig van Beethoven, "Night Out with NAMI," with a concert and
dinner, Sunday, January 8, in the Music Building at the college.
Janssen Pharmaceutica of Titusville has given $25,000 as corporate
sponsor of the event.
Kogan acknowledges that since many psychological analyses have been
done after various composers’ deaths, it is hard to pinpoint any of
these diagnoses with 100 percent accuracy. However, he does observe
that certain conditions, bipolar disorder, for example, seem
particularly conducive to creative achievement. "Bipolar disorder is
characterized by a swing into a manic state with a decreased need for
sleep, increased energy, and periods of sharpened imagination. More
important than mental illness, some kind of inner conflict seems to be
a precondition for bursts of creativity. People who are blandly
content don’t feel the need to create."
His third career, as lecturer-performer, was born when he had to do a
symposium on creativity and mental illness for the American
Psychiatric Association. "In order to prepare, I read the biographies
of composers of music I had played all my life, including Schumann,
Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Mozart. And I realized that patterns in
what was described about their moods and behaviors were similar to
those of patients I had seen in my office."
In show-and-tell form, Kogan alternately plays a composer’s music and
then takes the microphone to weave in an explanation of the
psychobiographical forces in the composer’s life that helped create
it. "This format gives audiences an opportunity to hear the context in
which the music was created and to appreciate it more. To bring the
listener into the world of the composer’s mind enhances the
In past years, Kogan has featured Gershwin, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky.
In his lecture on Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Kogan will play
three of Beethoven’s sonatas: Opus 10 No. 2; Opus 57, nicknamed the
Appassionata Sonata; and Opus 110. They represent the early, middle,
and late phases of his life, including the final stages when he became
completely deaf. "NAMI’s work is to help destigmatize mental illness,"
says Kogan. "Beethoven himself could have benefited from a mental
health professional. He had volatile moods, paranoid persecutory
delusions, and suicidal depressions at different times in his life.
Like his father, who was an alcoholic, he also became one. He probably
had manic and psychotic tendencies as well."
Some of the urgency of Beethoven’s need to create was that he started
going deaf at a critical stage of musical development, when he was
about 30 years old. By the time of his death in 1827, he was
completely deaf. "After losing his hearing he contemplated suicide but
decided not to kill himself because he had a sense of his artistic
destiny and he felt an obligation to fulfill it." But Beethoven was so
frustrated by his deafness, says Kogan, that he sublimated his anger
and passion into his music. "This was only way he could express his
rage against the heavens and curse at his fate, creating emotions that
he would not have needed to contact if he had led a more peaceful
life. His Ode to Joy, the last movement of the Ninth Symphony, was one
of the last great works of his life, and was performed for the first
time when he was completely deaf. Nothing has expressed universal
brotherhood, triumph, and complete joy in the way this piece of music
has. Because of his suffering, he created this happiness for us."
Kogan says the roots of Beethoven’s music also lie in his terribly
turbulent childhood with an alcoholic father who beat him and a mother
who stood by. To escape the harshness of his life, Beethoven created a
fantasy to fortify himself against his father’s brutality. He openly
declared that his father was not his real father, and in fact, he
encouraged people to believe that he was the illegitimate son of the
King of Prussia. "While most children would have given up this
romantic family fantasy, Beethoven never did, carrying this fantasy
into his adulthood. He had a hunger for greatness. He maintained a
yearning to have a legitimacy confirmed upon him and yet developed
lifelong disdain for authority, which he often railed against, again,
expressing himself through his music."
Beethoven also had a tendency to pine for unavailable women, pursuing
women of the aristocracy and women who were married or attached in
some way. Because his great romances were unfulfilled, Kogan says this
unfulfilled passion emerges in his music. His famous Moonlight Sonata
was dedicated to a woman named Giuletta Giucciardi, a countess out of
his reach. "As was his fantasy about his royal bloodlines, these
romances were also fantasies. By choosing to fall in love with
aristocrats who were married, he was ensuring that they wouldn’t
succeed." He did have a passionate affair with the woman who would
come to be known in history as his "Immortal Beloved," documented in
letters that exist today. There is much speculation about who she was,
most likely someone of royalty or wealth, but no one really knows.
(The story is explored in the 1994 film, "Immortal Beloved," starring
Gary Oldman as Beethoven.) This woman, Immortal Beloved, told
Beethoven she would leave her husband for him. At first he declared
they would live a glorious life together, but ultimately, he decided
not to embrace the life of happily ever after. "As an artist, he
believed that his destiny would not allow him to share his life with
anyone else," Kogan says.
The "Immortal Beloved" was Beethoven’s last and greatest love. After
that relationship was over, he devoted the next five years of his life
pitted against his sister-in-law, to win the guardianship of his
nephew, Karl, after his brother died. "What was fascinating about his
pursuit of this guardianship was that during it, he was in a creative
slump. Beethoven seemed to feel a need for some sort of family
structure to complete his life and make him creative again. Once he
gained custody, he became extraordinarily creative. Beethoven
abandoned the heroic style of his music and, with this child in his
life, entered a new stage of musical development, becoming more
personal, communicative, and expressive."
Richard Kogan was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the second of five
children. His father was a gastroenterologist who had a practice in
Elizabeth for 50 years. His mother was a music teacher, who first sat
him down at the piano at the age of four. "I was told I had a lot of
energy, and I was probably tearing up the house and scribbling on the
walls. Music was a way to harness that energy." His talent was
evident, and by the age of six, he was studying piano with Nadia
Reisenberg in the pre-college division at Juilliard. One of the
friends he would make at Juilliard was fellow student Yo-Yo Ma, who
would become a world famous cellist. Kogan took his musical talent to
Harvard, where he majored in music and also pursued a pre-med program.
His path would cross again with Ma, who was also studying at Harvard,
and they became good friends. In his freshman year, Kogan and Ma
enlisted a third musician, violinist Lynn Chang, to form a trio. The
three of them played all through Kogan’s undergraduate years (he
graduated in 1977) and also when he went to Harvard Medical School (he
graduated in 1982).
Attending medical school and simultaneously pursuing his career as a
concert pianist was, needless to say, a challenging balancing act, but
the dean of the medical school interceded to allow Kogan to do both.
"He would give me months off between my clinical clerkships in order
Kogan lives in New York City with his wife and three children, a
11-year-old son, a 14-year-old daughter, and a 15-year-old daughter,
who is a pre-college division student at Juilliard, playing cello.
Kogan says his lecture-concerts have enabled him to embark upon a
gratifying personal journey that has helped him become a better
musician. "Knowing about the lives, conditions, and struggles of the
great composers on a deeper level has made me play their music in a
much more committed way." Kogan is hoping to inspire others in the
same way with a new series of presentation-performances on DVD, "Music
& the Mind," which feature the life and works of the classical
composers. Produced by Yamaha, the first installment focuses on the
brilliant 19th century composer Robert Schumann.
Kogan is convinced that music can be used to help today’s mentally
ill. The challenge is to tap into the powerfully creativity urges and
pull of certain psychiatric conditions while removing the pain and
stigma of mental illness. Music can also be used to soothe. He is
excited about the implications of scientific work that documents what
music does to the immune system and how that work can be used to help
patients. "We have so much music around us, most of it is background
noise, ringtones on cell phones, music in elevators, but not enough
people are really listening closely. Music is a tremendously
underutilized resource. It has extraordinary healing properties.
There’s so much suffering. There are many troubled kids and adults who
would benefit by having more music in their lives. These composers
used music to heal themselves. They can help heal us as well."
Night Out with NAMI, a concert and dinner, Sunday, January 8, 3 p.m.,
in the Music Building at the college. $50 for the concert alone; $150
for the concert, reception, and "Starry Night" dinner. Call
609-799-8994 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on Kogan’s
DVD series, "Masters & the Mind," call 800-759-1294.
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