Plague, Pox and Pestilence
Daniel Defoe to W B Yeats, Koechlin to Cole Porter, Fanny Burney to Mrs Beeton. Music, poetry and prose on the subject of disease. This edition pops a thermometer under the tongue and examines for buboes, sores and carbuncles. The readers are Michael Fenton Stevens and Josette Simons.
Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes
A Journal of the Plague Year (Extract) read by Michael Fenton Stevens
A Journal of the Plague Year (Extract) read by Josette Simons
A Litany in Time of Plague read by Michael Fenton Stevens
A Cure for Warts (from The Book of Household Management) read by Josette Simons
To Sickness read by Michael Fenton Stevens
Sonnet 118 read by Josette Simons
Against Nature (extract) read by Michael Fenton Stevens
A Cure for Toothache (from The Book of Household Management) read by Josette Simons
This Is Going To Hurt Just A Little Bit read by Michael Fenton Stevens
W B Yeats
Upon a Dying Lady read by Josette Simons
Account from Paris of a Terrible Operation1812 (extract) read by Josette Simon
Thomas Mann (Translated by Martin C. Doege)
Death in Venice (extract) read by Michael Fenton Stevens
A Cure for Palpitation of the heart (from The Book of Household Management) read by Josette Simons
Anatomy of Melancholy (extract) read by Michael Fenton Stevens
A Cure for A Cold on the Chest (from The Book of Household Management) read by Josette Simons
Don’t panic – if the subject matter itself is not exactly uplifting, authors and composers down the ages have often responded to the pain and indignity of disease with honesty, compassion and sometimes even a certain black humour.
We start in the 17th Century which had a very direct and earthy attitude towards disease and death. Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary sets the timeless poetry of the Book of Common Prayer with a powerful simplicity which reminds us that “Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery”. Daniel Defoe’s “Journal of the Plague Year” is an account of one man's experiences of the year 1665, in which the Great Plague struck the city of London – an event that would still have been very fresh to Purcell’s contemporaries.
To lighten the mood we pause for the first of Mrs Beeton’s no-nonsense cures. In the words of historian Graham Nown, Isabella Beeton was “a singular and remarkable woman, praised in her lifetime and later forgotten and ignored when a pride in light pastry were no longer considered prerequisites for womanhood. Yet in her lively, progressive way, she helped many women to overcome the loneliness of marriage and gave the family the importance it deserved. In the climate of her time she was brave, strong-minded and a tireless champion of her sisters everywhere.”
The connection between love, sickness and death came to haunt the imagination of many artists in the Nineteenth Century when syphilis, or “the great pox”, was largely incurable.
Against Nature is a “decadent” novel by the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans which deals with the inner life of an eccentric aesthete who retreats into an ideal artistic world of his own creation. In this surreal scene he visualises the figure of syphilis as a frightening but fascinating creature that transforms from a phallic woman into something darkly rapacious and vaguely floral. It’s like a nightmare version of the Flowermaidens in Wagner’s Parsifal.
Fanny Burney was a successful novelist in her day, and her diaries still fizz with the gossip and scandals of literary London in the late 18th century. But her most powerful piece of writing is the letter she wrote to her sister, Esther describing her breast cancer and mastectomy without modern anesthetic. It is a harrowing account, through which her bravery and strength shine out.
After that, only Beethoven can take over where words leave off. His late A minor string quartet was written after recovering from a serious illness and the third movement is headed with the words “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode”.
No meditation on sickness and disease would be complete without an extract from the disease-obsessed Thomas Mann who said “Disease, and most specially opprobrious, suppressed, secret disease, creates a certain critical opposition to the world, to mediocre life, disposes a man to be obstinate and ironical toward civil order, so that he seeks refuge in free thought, in books, in study.”
The passage from Mann’s “Death in Venice” describes the relentless journey of the Indian cholera which eventually kills the protagonist of the novella. “Born in the sultry swamps of the Ganges delta, ascended with the mephitic odour of that unrestrained and unfit wasteland, that wilderness avoided by men, in the bamboo thickets in which the tiger is crouching, the epidemic had spread to Hindustan, to China, to Afghanistan and Persia and even to Moscow.” This atmospheric passage is underscored with a movement from Koechlin’s Persian Hours describing a caravan, or group of travellers on a long slow journey.
A brief glance back at the 17th Century with the dyspeptic and flatulent belchings listed in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy before a final visit to matron in the company of the permanently unmarried Adelaide who complains that “just from waiting around for that plain little band of gold, a person can develop a cold.”
PRODUCER: CLIVE PORTBURY""Added, go to My Music