Crazy Good

October 29th, 2008 | Sources: Harvard Med. Alumni Bull.


People have suspected for at least 2000 years that mental illness is disproportionately common among artists. Aristotle for one believed that great philosophers and artists alike had to endure some form of melancholy. Irving Stone’s Lust for Life, a 1934 tome about Vincent van Gogh’s lifelong struggles with psychosis (and the 1956 film adaptation starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn) helped popularize the presumed association.

Writing in this month’s Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin, psychiatrist Richard Kogan explores the link for classical music composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and others.

Kogan has particularly interesting anecdotes about the Russian composer, Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Among other things, Tchaikovsky was convinced that his head was about to fall off his neck. He was chronically depressed and expressed suicidal ideation many times in his diary. He self-medicated with alcohol and once confessed, “I’m drunk every evening, and I cannot live otherwise.” (aha! Pizaazz now understands why the man felt his head was about to fall off his neck)

Kogan tells us that composing music did alleviate Tchaikovsky’s suffering. Tchaikovsky’s ballet masterpieces such as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty are musical fantasylands where, it is said, Tchaikovsky could escape his own despair.

Tchaikovsky also lived in constant fear of being outed as a homosexual, and with good reason. In czarist Russia, this behavior was punishable by banishment to Siberia.


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