Is there a doctor in the mouse?

Source: Megalit / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As I write this blog, I’m in a lock-down situation in London arising from the Covid-19 epidemic. What was planned as a quick 7-day visit to the capital has turned into a longer-term relationship, since my home base of Thailand has pulled up the drawbridge against returning travellers such as myself. I’m staying in a hotel near London’s Paddington Station, and my permitted daily emergence to do a spot of shopping takes me past St Mary’s Hospital. Yesterday, I noticed a plaque on the wall informing passers-by that behind the second-floor window above the plaque, Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) discovered penicillin.

That, plus the intermittent sound of ambulances hurtling their sirens into the healing arms of St Mary’s, got me wondering if the doctor appellation has in any way been musically marked by classical composers. And so, my mouse got to work.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
Source: Workshop of Filippo Lippi / CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

We first go way back in time to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1090-1153) who spearheaded the revitalisation of Benedictine monasticism through the emerging Order of Cistercians. In 1830 he was granted the title Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XIII.

Fast forward four centuries from St Bernard to the name of Andreas Hakenberger (1573/74-1627), a musician who spent his entire professional career within the territory of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. In June 1607, Hakenberger, a Catholic by confession, applied to Gdańsk City Council for the prestigious post of chapel-master at the Lutheran Church of St Mary’s. The councillors were won over by Hakenberger’s polychoral output in the Venetian style that was becoming increasingly popular north of the Alps. Initially employed for one year, he ultimately remained chapel-master at St Mary’s to the end of his life.

The Pelplin Organ Tablature, a manuscript containing around 850 works, was prepared during the third and fourth decades of the 17th century for the Cistercian monastery in Pelplin, situated around 50 km south of Gdańsk. It contains most of Hakenberger’s printed works (53 out of 62). One of the earliest of those is a motet titled Bernadus Doctor Inclitus (Bernard, the Distinguished Doctor). It was scored for alternatim performance, with the use of plainsong passages alternating with multi-voiced sections. In the odd-numbered stanzas, Hakenberger gradually increases the texture from five to eight parts. With the plainsong rendition of the even-numbered stanzas, it becomes clear that the first letters of successive stanzas form an acrostic with the Christian name of St Bernard.

Bernadus Doctor Inclitus (8.573743-44)


Alban Berg
© HNH International

It’s quite a leap from the miraculous cures attributed to Saint Bernard to the character of the doctor in Woyzeck, a stage drama by Georg Büchner (left unfinished at his death in 1837). Alban Berg (1885-1935) subsequently used the drama as the basis for his opera Wozzeck, which premiered in 1925.

Berg’s stage action opens with Wozzeck shaving a military Captain, who accuses Wozzeck of immoral ways by living with his mistress and child without the benefit of marriage. Wozzeck states that he could live virtuously if only he were rich. He then suffers from some terrible visions and shares the experience with his mistress, Marie.

Wozzeck then visits the Doctor, who is hardly a paragon of medical research, and agrees to participate in his experiments in order to earn much-needed money. His intake is to be nothing but a diet of peas; the physiological and psychiatric results will be monitored. How much this medical intervention leads to Wozzek’s eventual murder of Marie is now an issue. Wozzeck tells the Doctor of his hallucinations, much to the Doctor’s delight. Here’s that scene from the Doctor’s study.

Wozzeck (8.660390-91)


Doctor Faust
Source: scanned by NobbiP / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Now to a short and unusual orchestral piece by Biedrich Smetana (1824-1884), known first and foremost as the founder of modern Czech national music. Written in 1862, Doctor Faust is the first of two overtures that Smetana wrote for special comic performances, puppet-plays by a famous master of the art, Matĕj Kopecký. His play draws somewhat naively, shall we say, on Goethe’s famous drama about Faust. It was performed at a New Year’s Eve party in 1863 by members of the newly founded Artists’ Club, who imitated the stiff movements and heightened dictions of puppets.

Smetana’s music starts with a hint of this imitation of clumsy movement, before evoking Faust’s learned character with a slightly adapted quotation, treated polyphonically, from what is possibly the most learned music in the world — J. S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue. Faust’s meditations are interrupted by the angelic voice of the piano, from the right, and the voice of the Devil, a trombone, from the left. After that, everything is parody, with a popular contemporary folk-style melody developing from the learned theme, arguably turning the doctor into a bit of a quack.

Doctor Faust (8.223705)


Peter Maxwell Davies

The British composer Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) wrote his opera The Doctor of Myddfai in 1995. The plot describes how a terrible plague (which spreads only when it’s raining) afflicts the people of Wales, and how a mysterious doctor who has inherited the gift of magical healing powers, emerges from a small Welsh village as the people’s champion and boldly confronts the country’s dictatorial ruler for having caused this terrible affliction. In the end, the doctor is himself slain by the victims of the disease, becoming in effect a scapegoat, sacrificed for the ills of the suffering people. But his young child survives, and thus provides continuity for the inherited art of healing.

The opera’s first scene begins with the eerie sounds of percussion, a rainstick and maracas, suggesting the ominous descent of rain. The Doctor is telling his eight-year-old child the story of how their ancestor, a Welsh shepherd, came to be granted his miraculous healing powers, by correctly selecting one of three beautiful maidens emerging from the lake.


Act I, Scene 1 opening (8.558191-92)


Gradually the father seems to become distracted, and as the chorus intones a hymn of prayer in Welsh, he vows that he will go to the officials who ignore the people’s plight, and demand of the Ruler — a strange, lonely and isolated figure — that action be taken to cleanse the political corruption that has brought about the plague, symptomatic of the wrongs committed by the ‘unnatural’ state. At the first scene’s close, a great hymn of the despairing Welsh people surges to a climax before the music dies away to the sound of pastoral woodwind.

Act I, Scene 1 conclusion (8.558191-92)


We return to the story of Doctor Faust now, but with a slightly more serious-minded approach than was evident in Smetana’s music for puppets. Ferrucio Busoni (1866-1924) wrote his opera Doktor Faust between 1916 and 1924, leaving it unfinished at the time of his death; it was completed by one of his students.

During Prologue II of Act I, Faust tells the demon Mephistopheles about his desire to be a genius. Mephistopheles demands that Faust should serve him for ever if he does his bidding and fulfils his wishes. Faust refuses, but Mephistopheles points out to him that his creditors are at the door and that the brother of a girl Faust has seduced is seeking to kill him. Faust realises that he is trapped and orders Mephistopheles to murder his adversaries. Mephistopheles demands that Faust should sign the agreement. Our extract picks up at the moment when the two meet.

Doktor Faust (OC956)


My final musical doctor reference has an unpromising start. It’s an extract from an operetta by America’s March King, John Philip Sousa (1854-1932). Nowadays, Sousa may not be widely remembered for his stage works, but performances of his operettas in his day equalled those by Gilbert and Sullivan in popularity. One exception was The American Maid, which has struggled to survive, despite having the distinction of being among the first theatrical shows to employ actual film footage. Originally known as The Glassblowers, it received its first performance in 1913.

A revival in 2000 at the Glimmerglass Festival in America failed to excite the reviewer from the UK’s Observer newspaper:

[The operetta’s] “plot”— something about a mix-up between two couples, one nouveau riche, the other old money, who get things sorted out during the Spanish-American War — defies synopsis.

As I sat there, trying to get into the aren’t-we-having-fun spirit of the piece, it occurred to me that what The Glass Blowers was really about is something that is simply beyond restoration. Call it a time when patriotism was actually fun — the age of American innocence.

Despite those observations, I’m going to end with an arrangement for wind band of one of the musical items from the show. I hope that the spirit of the music and the message of the title will both continue to ring true for you: You Do Not Need a Doctor.

You Do Not Need a Doctor (8.559811)


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