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Soul music as exemplified in 19th century German psychiatry – Dr Cheryce Kramer 01



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Soul music as exemplified in 19th century German psychiatry –  Dr Cheryce Kramer [from Musical healing in Cultural Contexts]

One late summer day in 1848 a gymnastics instructor working in a psychiatric asylum near Dresden asked his class to assemble in a pinwheel formation. The group was to make the pinwheel rotate left and right in accordance with his shouted commands and a rhythm he clapped to mark each stride. The patients had executed this formation many times before and enjoyed performing it both for the asylum community and audiences at large. But its primary purpose was therapy rather than entertainment.

The psychiatric opinion of the day held coordinated, cadenced activity, such as would be required to execute the above formation, to be conducive to mental well-being.

On this particular day, however, the therapeutic effect was absent.

One patient on the periphery of the pinwheel formation was unable to keep in step with her fellow gymnasts. As a consequence the pattern of movement was neither coordinated nor cadenced and the pinwheel resembled a bicycle wheel after collision with a tree. To save the formation, and its medicinal potential, the instructor placed the offending gymnast in the very centre of the pinwheel where she needed only to rotate on the spot. Unable to carry out the leg movements associated with the first position, the patient was perfectly able to execute the pivoting turns required for the second. After this simple adjustment, coordination and cadence permeated the group's movement and, we are told, the pinwheel rotated unimpeded.

The casual simplicity of this episode masks a complex set of cultural relations organizing the music therapy practised in a nineteenth-century German asylum which pioneered an approach to psychiatry emphasizing sensory stimulation over pharmaceutics or routines of persuasion…………….

Pre-Freudian German psychiatry was directed towards a peculiar soul-organ called the Gemuth, which by all accounts, suffered its own forms of illness, required its own forms of treatment and was peculiarly susceptible to sensory stimulation, especially music. A historical example will serve to characterize the peculiar brand of music therapy which arose within the context of the psychiatry of Gemuth ….The example is based upon psychiatric practice at the Cure and Nursing Home Illenau from 1842 to 1889

Music was administered to patients via the staged, public concert. In the year 1875 alone asylum officials arranged for 140 concerts to be held at Illenau. The asylum maintained a house choir, marching band and chamber orchestra and employed a full-time music instructor who worked in close collaboration with the physicians. Every piece of music performed at the asylum had to receive prior medical approval and compositions deemed aesthetically too demanding for those suffering from an affliction … had to be rewritten by the music instructor.

The asylum published the lllenauer Liederbuch, a book of special hymns for mental patients that became the standard text for psychiatric asylums throughout Germany. But musical selections were not modified solely according to medical criteria; the musical talent assembled at the asylum also exerted an influence on the final form of each composition.

In the early years, for example, the harmonium featured prominently in Illenau's concert because that was the preferred instrument of the asylum's first music instructor.

In keeping with the standard concert practices of the period, the Illenau concert consisted of selected miniatures by nine or twelve composers and rarely included more than one small movement from a Iarger piece of music. A typical performance would take a form similar to the concert held in the Illenau assembly hall on18th January 1883:

Overture to'lphigenie in Aulis' by Gluck for piano
'Pilgerspruch', choral piece by Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
'Vespergesang', choral piece by Bortniansky
'Die drei Liebchen', solo for baritone by Speyer
'An das Vaterland', choral piece for male choir by Kreutzer
'Waldlied', choral piece for male choir by Mangold
'Ave Maria' by Stradella for piano, harmonium and violin
'Der Spielmann und sein Kind', duet by Weidt
'Seliger Tod', choral piece for male choir by Isenmann
'Silbernes Bachlein', choral piece for male choir by Isenmann
Allegro movement from the C Major Sonata for Piano and Violin by Mozart
Cantata for mixed choir by Palmer.

Contrasting pieces were combined to span a wide field of aural sensations: sacred and popular, major and minor, fast and slow, lyrical and marching, instrumental and vocal, solo and choral. These concerts frequently featured children's pieces, rarely touched upon romantic themes, and elided highly chromatic sequences of pitch as well as complicated harmonies. The Illenau concert used modulations of sound to combine a heterogeneity of sensations into a single balanced experience that would be conducive to the flourishing of Gemuth.

It is no accident that one of the most popular composers at IIIenau and of the period was Mendelssohn, his musical style being ideally suited to the phenomenal proclivities of Gemuth.

The aesthetic experience Mendelssohn strove to create through music mapped perfectly onto the experience coded into every aspect of lllenau's institutional arrangement. For Illenau physicians the restorative potential of music resided not primarily in the rhythmic and tonal qualities of individual sounds but, more importantly, in the aesthetic effect of an entire composition with its balance of tone, harmony, rhythm and cadence.

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