Medicine, mortality and music

[This story was published on November 10 on the Sussex Express website. Read the original story at]



Medicine and Mortality, Ensemble Moliere, Brighton Friends’ Meeting House, November 5

France, 1725. A Monsieur Valancourt has taken ill. The bells of Sainte Genevieve Abbey sound in the Parisian neighbourhood, and, as the patient’s condition worsens, the medical staff prepare to send him on his last journey from this world to the next.

Brighton. 2016. The tale of Valancourt is brought to life in the present day through an arrangement of flute, violin, viola da gamba, basson and harpsichord. A journalist with little to no knowledge of classical music is surprised to find she can actually tell what’s going on.

Despite having an often-tumultuous two-year relationship with my violin, classical music is a subject I often find difficult to fully appreciate. Because of this, I approached Ensemble Moliere’s performance for the Brighton Early Music Festival 2016 with a cautious interest.

The draw for me was seeing how, as the BREMF programme promised, a gall bladder operation performed without anaesthetic would be interpreted through the medium of classical music.

Medicine and music are an unlikely duo that has often been creatively linked over the years. Science and the humanities have a complex relationship. Historically, the two as academic disciplines have been kept quite separate, but in more recent years, the drive for interdisciplinary study has seen the two operate together, mutually informing each other’s work and producing creative results.

It is exciting, therefore, to see that the Brighton Early Music Festival has chosen ‘Nature and Science’ as its theme for 2016, championing observation, discovery, invention and creation through its music endeavours.

It could be argued that the history of medicine adds another dimension of complexity to the mix, representing the collision of the two worlds of science and nature, two forces which battle it out for life and limb.

For such an intellectual theme, however, Ensemble Moliere’s ‘Medicine and Mortality’ performance is wonderfully accessible, even to a complete novice like me. Held at the Friends’ Meeting House on Ship Street on November 5, this musical performance explored life, death and beyond through a spoken narrative and a selection of musical pieces.

A helpful programme was handed out before the performance, outlining the selected performance pieces, why they were chosen, and how they related to the story of the fictive Monsieur Valancourt (particularly useful if, like me, you got stuck on a bus and completely missed the introductory scene).

In addition to the poor soul and his unmedicated surgery, an asthmatic and a convalescent are also met, and the music enables the audience to auditorily witness their experiences.

As a member of the audience, it is surprisingly easy to hear how the narrative permeates the music. A particularly clear example of this is in Marin Marais’ ‘La Sonnerie de Sainte Genevieve du Mont de Paris’. There are three descending notes in an ostinato pattern played repeatedly and obsessively during the piece. The music was written in this way to evoke the sound of the bells of Sainte Genevieve Abbey in the Paris neighbourhood where the composer grew up.

Inspired by Marais’ musical illustration of a removal of a urinary bladder calculus, an operation the composer is thought to have experienced first-hand, the music, although beautiful, does not allow us to forget the terror, misery and grief involved in eighteenth-century medicine.

Polyhymnia, the goddess of hymn, bade farewell to the story’s lost soul as it rose to heaven. I felt like thanking my own lucky stars that such experiences are no longer a scientific reality, but remain to us in the arts.

I had a chance to speak to Ensemble Moliere harpsichord player Satoko Doi-Luck about the performance…

Your work is very accessible to those without much experience of classical music. Is this a big part of your preparation or ethos when it comes to performing?

“Yes, we feel it’s our ethos and mission to deliver the music we love across to as widest audience as possible. We try to programme beautiful and fun music from the French baroque period, as well as when we introduce the pieces during the concerts we always try to include some interesting facts, history, or anecdote. Also, as you could see from Medicine and Mortality, we are aiming to engage audience with using other formats of arts – storytelling was this time. We are planning projects with animation film and dance in near future.”

How did you select the pieces for Medicine and Mortality?

“The programme evolved from Marin Marais’ unique ‘Le Tableau de l’opération de la Taille’, the combination of spoken text, virtuosic playing and overarching drama is incredibly exciting and served to inspire the ensemble to make a new programme. Each player went on to find pieces which excited them and that engaged with the theme. (L’Asmatique, La Convalescente, as well as three Rameau pieces from his opera – ‘Deadly Place’ ‘Sleep’ and ‘Entrance of the Goddess of Hymn’). Together the ensemble worked these pieces into a tale of a Parisian gentleman in a hospital. The incorporation of an original script has been a new challenge for the ensemble and they have thoroughly enjoyed writing, re-writing and tweaking the tale of this fellow.”

Why did you choose this particular theme?

“Brighton Early Music Festival has a theme every year. This year’s their theme was Nature & Science. Their artistic directors Deborah Roberts and Clare Norburn helped and supported us, gave us an opportunity to perform and some starting ideas of the programme.” Find out more about Ensemble Moliere’s upcoming events at


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