The Music of Surgery

Who can choose when or where the Muses descend and sow their creative seeds, and significantly, who can decide what form that creativity takes? For example: to some, my work is an abomination. To me, it is art.

Suffice it to say, the muse assigned to Monsieur Maraise was having a particularly bad day when it proffered upon him this peculiar and macabre classical composition – the little known (yet decidedly worthy of notoriety), Le tableau de l’opération de la taille, or ‘Tableu of a Bladder Operation’.

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litho forceps
‘Better out than in’ is certainly sometimes debatable.

In the next article I will begin a brief study into the horribly painful (and only occasionally successful) surgery known as a lithotomy, or bladder stone removal. However it was during my research of historical bladder-stone removal procedures (average Sunday reading, of course) that I found this singularly strange musical nugget (ahem) written in homage of the medical procedure, and most likely the only one of its kind regarding any type of medical practice.

It terms of lithotomy itself, it’s hard to say which is worse: the bladder stone or the surgery to remove it. Notably during a time when anesthetics like chloroform and ether were some time away from utilization, the procedure was made all the worse with incompetent doctors and the likelihood of infection. I want to go into more detail for your reading pleasure about precisely how bad it really was in the next article, but suffice it to say, it was extremely traumatic for both the doctor and assistant – as well as the patient themselves, of course.

litho Marin_Marais_2
Marais playing the ever popular ‘While My Patient Slowly Weeps’.

Literary rumor has it, Monsieur Marin Marais, a prominent French composer and viol player, personally underwent the procedure before composing his piece, and you can see why that opinion persists, given the description of grim reluctance on the part of the patient towards approaching the operating table:

“The appearance of the apparatus.
Shuddering at the sight of it.
Resolving to climb onto it.
Achieving this.
Descending again…”

It’s written for the instrument Viola de gamba with a spoken word element designed to be performed in conjunction. At around four minutes, the tune is roughly the length of the average procedure itself (providing the doctor knew what he was doing –  I suppose you could run through the piece a few times to get the true effect of a botched operation). It was composed in 1725 and it’s unknown what kind of reception it received in concert halls and theaters, although I think I can venture a guess…

“… solemn thoughts.
Securing the arms and legs with silken cords.
Now the incision is made.
The pincers are inserted…”

litho bladder
The bladder is like a good education, I suppose. You get out of it what you put in.

While being a rather hideous description of the operation, it’s fairly accurate and amusing too, as the music picks up a bit towards the end, indicating the outcome to be a positive one. I wouldn’t say that the patient would exactly be rejoicing at this stage, more likely hoping that the wound doesn’t begin to leak pus or bleed again. I’m sure he or she would be deserving of a drink or two however, no matter how medically inadvisable that might be.

“… now the stone is pulled out.
Now the voice dies away to a croak.
Flowing blood.
Now the cords are removed.
Now one is carried to bed… the recovery.”

An added interesting fact – one of the most prominent lithotomists in France at the time was Frère Jacques Beaulieu, whose name purportedly has some connection with the children’s nursery rhyme Frère Jacques, although that remains uncertain. It seems that terrifying, often deadly procedures and musical entertainment are once again bedfellows.

As mentioned, next article I’ll be delving in further into the subject, as it were, for your macabre enjoyment. Until then, lay off the salty food?

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Note: Below is a recording of a performance of the piece in English. It has a considerable amount of embellishment and a rather laughable adoption of Olde English parlance, but it’s still quite entertaining.

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