Monday, October 6, 2008

Reference: Shostakovich: Music on the Brain? Author: Dajue Wang Source: The Musical Times, Vol. 124, No. 1684 (Jun., 1983), pp. 347-348 Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd.

Summary: Dr. Wang begins the article by telling a “story” about a well-known composer, who is not immediately identified. From the title, however, it is evident that said composer is in fact Dmitiri Shostakovich. Dr. Wang does not doubt the authenticity of the story, as he/ she had personally come to know the neurosurgeon who had treated Shostakovich. In the 1950’s Dr. Wang worked with a Soviet surgeon, who said that he had seen Shostakovich as a patient. The famous composer revealed that he had a piece of metal embedded in the brain. An x-ray was performed to confirm that the piece of metal existed. However, Shostakovich was reluctant to have it removed, because whenever he moved his head a certain way, he could hear music – music he used as inspiration. The surgeon who saw him then placed him in front of fluoroscope and asked Shostakovich to move his head. During the movement the piece of metal moved a certain way, prompting the surgeon to conclude that it was located in the temporal horn of the left ventricle – the part that is concerned with hearing. A decision was made to leave the metal fragment in place, as another Soviet surgeon said: “ A German shell would have done some good if it produced more music.”

How did the metal fragment get there? Shostakovich said that he had been in a city under siege and was injured when a shell near him exploded. Biographies suggest that Shostakovich was certainly in Leningrad during the siege, but none have mentioned the injury. The surgeon in question is no longer alive, and while medical records presumably exist, they may be very difficult to obtain. This makes it challenging to verify the events.

The question is, if the story were true, why would it have been kept a secret? Was it perhaps a personal choice by the composer?

Dr. Wang continues by describing that pressure in the temporal lobe caused for example by a tumour, does cause patients to hear noises, but none have ever described it as music. Dr. Wang also poses a rhetorical question: does this injury have a positive effect on the quality of Shostakovich’s music?

Review: This article was quite short and lacking in some details. One wonders why Dr. Wang waited more than 30 years to relate this story, or why no-one has investigated this before. Is it perhaps because of the Cold War? However, it makes intriguing reading, and as a reader, I am persuaded that this story is probably true. It would be interesting to establish whether any researcher has followed up on this article, either about Shostakovich, or about the phenomenon of hearing noise/ music when there is pressure on the temporal lobe of the brain.

Personal Response: I actually came across this article while searching for information about Shostakovich on J-Stor. The title caught my eye and I decided to read the article to see whether it might have any bearing on this course. I am intrigued by the story and would be very interested in reading further about this topic. I do wonder why Shostakovich heard music and why other patients might hear noise. It is also interesting that, according to the version related by Dr. Wang, the initial advice was to remove the metal fragment. After considering Shostakovich’s vocation and the possible positive effect this fragment had on his compositional output, this decision was reversed. Obviously, it was not as dangerous as initially thought.


s@bd said...

Hard to believe (given the lack of confirmation and the hear-say nature of the entire story), but incredibly interesting ...

Could it be true that Shostakovich's music was inspired by what he heard because of a piece of metal lodged in his brain?

And are there more people like this? Who, instead of hearing noise, hear music?

Lee Bartel said...

Yes, interesting story - had not heard this before. True? Another form of musical composer's craziness?