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Ability & Disability among Musicians

by Mark Nicholson

Sit yourself down in a chair. Bend your left leg over your right. While keeping your back straight, scratch the end of your nose with your big toe and now start practicing scales on a French horn using the big toe for the first valve, the index & middle toes for the middle valve and the fore toe for the third valve. That’s what Felix Klieser did at his Proms debut on August 1st as he played the second of Mozart’s horn concertos (and for an encore, the Rondo from the 4th Concerto) in front of three thousand five hundred people. For those not well acquainted with classical music, bear in mind that the French horn is not only the hardest of all the brass section to master, it is also generally considered one of the most difficult of all orchestral instruments, owing to a nasty habit of jumping an octave when you least want or expect it to.

It is an annual highlight for me to migrate from Kenya to London and join or be guests of special friends for the promenade concerts (“The Proms”), a series of eighty-four concerts performed by over three thousand of the world’s top musicians in the Royal Albert Hall.

I was telling everyone that Klieser was a French horn player. But no, he is not a French French horn player but a German French horn Player, and anyway I am told there is nothing French about the French horn. So there! The Gӧttingen-born Klieser has been arm-less from birth. It is humbling indeed to watch someone overcome such a major disability and end up as a professional musician.

Let me modify Oscar Wilde’s famous line and say that “to lose one arm is a misfortune, to lose two sounds like carelessness”. And that brings to mind others with disabilities. Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand was composed specifically for the Austrian Jewish pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1) in 1930. His right arm was shot off in the first year of World War 1 when he was conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army. His 1933 recording is still available (2) but with numerous mistakes, and nothing like the flawless modern interpretations by pianists like Leon Fleisher (who suffered from focal dystonia in his right hand) or Yuja Wang. The comparisons are fascinating. Sadly, Fleisher died three years ago this month. I heard him play along with fifteen thousand others in Verona and his ability to play both melodic and harmonic lines with one hand was breath-taking.

The evening before Klieser, we heard Isata Kanneh-Mason (pictured left with her brother, Sheku) play Prokoviev’s devilishly difficult 3rd Piano Concerto. Isata is the eldest of what is generally regarded as the most gifted musical family alive. All six of her siblings are musicians; three are now professional. Sheku, one of the most talented young cellists, performed solo at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan in Windsor castle. The family are British, the mother having been born in Sierra Leone (3) and the father’s parents natives of Antigua.

Russian conductors, of course, are not the flavour of the decade in the West. Valerie Gergiev, in my opinion one of the two best conductors alive today, lost his job in early 2022 in Munich for refusing to denounce his long-standing pal Putin following the attack on Ukraine. Gergiev would not, or could not, publicly end his long-expressed support for Putin. Conversely, my other favourite, Kirill Petrenko, who is not a friend of Putin’s, called the invasion “a knife in the back of the entire peaceful world” and so kept his job with the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, his namesake, Vasily Petrenko, has given up conducting in Russia after describing the Russian invasion as “one of the greatest moral failures of our century”. It is somehow fitting that Vasily conducted Shostakovich’s defiant 10th Symphony on 15 August at the Albert Hall. All Shostakovich’s later symphonies were fervently anti-Stalin, anti-Hitler and anti-war. However, other Russian performers have been sent packing. The opera singer Anna Netrebko is suing New York City's Metropolitan Opera for $360,000, after she was dropped when the invasion happened. She is claiming that this decision caused her "depression, humiliation, embarrassment, stress, anxiety, emotional pain and suffering". I suspect her lawyers embellished her list of woes.

At least no one has banned the performance of works by Russian composers. The other large works we heard last week were Rachmaninov’s 2nd Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. Rightly or wrongly, I have always considered that musicians and gardeners are less likely to have mental health problems than other people. Making music or playing it are essentially joyful activities. Likewise, I don’t think I have ever met an unhappy gardener. The failure of Rachmaninov’s rarely played First Symphony put him into a three-year long bout of depression but I reckon that was his vanity in thinking his composition was more impressive than it was (4). Gustav Mahler’s equally talented brother Otto committed suicide at 21 but that is very rare for musicians. It was Tchaikovsky’s last years that were the exception. Both the 5th and the 6th are ominous and ultimately tragic works even though they cover the whole gamut of human emotions from joy to intense melancholy. Tchaikovsky’s sad end was due to the unacceptability of homosexuality in Orthodox Russian society. His downfall came when he arrived in St. Petersburg to conduct his Sixth Symphony. Duke Stenbock-Thurmor had written to Czar Alexander III, claiming his nephew was engaged in a love affair with the composer. The Czar must have been aware of Tchaikovsky’s sexual inclination because it was widely known. But the prospect of a court case involving Tchaikovsky would have meant a universal scandal: Russian high society in 1893 (two years before Oscar Wilde’s first trial) was not ready for it. Whether he died from cholera or he was ‘invited’ or encouraged to commit suicide (by drinking contaminated water) shortly thereafter has never been resolved.

The final Prom I went to this year was Mozart’s unfinished Requiem, written in 1791, the most productive and final year of his life at 35. Mozart was well acquainted with early death. He was the youngest of seven children, five of whom died in infancy. Of his own six children, only two survived. In addition to having what was probably the behavioural disorder Tourettes’s syndrome (first described in 1895), he also suffered frequent attacks of tonsillitis. In 1794 he developed post-streptococcal Schönlein-Henoch syndrome, which would have caused purpura, chronic nephritis and renal failure. His death was probably due either to the latter or to cerebral haemorrhage and/ or bronchopneumonia, or all three.

Beethoven’s deafness was almost certainly the result of another unusual malady. By the age of 44, he had become completely deaf in both ears, most likely caused by compression of the eighth cranial nerve associated with Paget's disease. His head became enlarged, which one can see from the prominent forehead, the protruding jaw and chin, all features consistent with Paget's, a disease containable today using bisphosphonates to control bone growth.

While on the subject of deafness, the viola player Christopher Goldsheider successfully sued the Royal Opera in 2012 for hearing loss after playing in front of the brass section during performances of Wagner’s Die Walkure. The noise level was 137 dB, “equivalent to a jet engine 100ft. away”.

The Spanish composer Rodrigo, who wrote the magical Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar, went blind at three following diphtheria, today easily preventable with vaccination.

Composers are no less susceptible to the diseases that kill the rest of us. Robert Schumann died of vascular dementia brought on by tertiary syphilis. Brahms died of liver cancer, Bartok of polycythaemia and Chopin of TB, But the lives of many of them might have been much longer if antibiotics and related drugs had been around.

Mental illness, sadly, is not so easily treatable, but it seems to be rare amongst musicians. Yes, both Paul Wittgenstein and the extraordinary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould displayed Asperger’s syndrome but that clearly contributed to their flair.

Tchaikovsky did not of course suffer from mental illness. He was the victim of discrimination and persecution, which resulted in depression. As the great Horowitz said: "Tchaikovsky is admired for his emotional frankness; if his music seems harried and insecure, so are we all".

The Proms serve also to remind us how much we should be grateful for in the 21st Century: the sheer professionalism of today’s performers is staggering. And let us not forget the technological magic that allows us to hear superb renditions of brilliant performances, live, or on the radio or television or indeed anytime, thanks to advances such as BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds etc.

1 From a highly distinguished family and brother of one of the greatest mathematicians and philosophers of the 20th Century, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

2 Available on


3 House of Music – Raising the Kanneh-Masons by Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason

4 It is actually a wonderful work. The first under-rehearsed performance was ruined by the conductor (and composer) Alexander Glazunov, who happened to be drunk at the time.


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