Music and Alzheimer's

I have previously mentioned the violinist (and former leader of the Medici Quartet) Paul Robertson's work with music and Alzheimer's Disease. It was a pleasure to hear him on BBC Radio 3's In Tune programme last night talking about his latest project, Swansongs. This is a 'performance' in words and music of the process, pathology, struggles, and compensations of Alzheimer's (which is one of the prime causes of dementia). The project is a joint one between Paul Robertson and John Zeisel who is an international expert on the non-pharmacological treatment of people with Alzheimer's (which is thought to be related to 'protein tangles' in crystal structures in the brain).

Swansongs mixes music and storytelling to give insights into Alzheimer's. Among the musical examples used are Bach's Allemande from the Partita in D minor, the Cavatina from Beethoven's Opus 130 Quartet, Faure's String Quartet (which was apparantely composed in the early stages of dementia and exhibits 'shapelessness'), Smetana's 2nd Quartet which was created in an advanced period of mental degeneration due to the composer's syphyllis, and Grundge by Judas Priest (no comment).

Prof. Paul Robertson

Paul Robertson is an informed, articulate and passionate advocate of the use of music to help Alzheimer's sufferers and carers. He can communicate far more fluently than me the benefits of his wonderful work. I urge everyone to visit the Swansongs web site, and to read in particular the Treatment Tips. The advice given here is applicable far beyond Alzheimer's sufferers. Paul Robertson is an inspiring communicators on this vitally important subject. Another book from him on the subject (he did write Music & Silence some years ago, but it is long out of print) would be invaluable - if only he had the time.

If the subject of Alzheimer's and dementia seems unduly gloomy remember that in the UK three-quarters of a million people suffer from the disease, while four and a half million family members and carers are affected. In the US five million live with the disease, and thirty million are affected in some way. No wonder Paul Robertson describes it as a pandemic.

Music is now an established tool for managing dementia related conditions


Jessica said…
I'm very curious about your comment re the Fauré string quartet. Early stages of dementia? First I've ever heard about it. What evidence has been presented for this? I'd like to know!

This piece is Fauré's last composition; he died just a few months after completing it, not from dementia but from lung problems (no doubt connected with smoking too much). He had been deaf, however, for many years; musicologists argue to this day over how far his deafness affected his music.

As for shapelessness: yes, the Fauré quartet can sound shapeless, but I believe this is because it is generally misunderstood by its performers. Having heard one performance by the Fitzwilliam Quartet which made the work spring to life as never before, I have a suspicion that because so many musicians think of Fauré as a composer who exists in a smooth, rarified, otherworldly atmosphere, especially in his "difficult" late works, they iron out all the dynamism, excitement, freshness and - yes - shape in those works. The quartet suffers more than any other. Play it with rhythmic strength, bring out its contrasts, enjoy its sensuality and you might be in for a surprise. Fauré's friends were constantly astonished by the youthful freshness of his late compositions and they deserve performances which do justice to that freshness!
Pliable said…
Jessica, I was more or less reporting what Paul Robertson said in the Radio 3 interview, and probably should have made it clearer that I was reporting his views. The Swansongs web site ( seems to confirm that this is his view as in the Swansongs programming the following is listed.
"Wandering in dementia - Gabriel Faure (1854-1924) "String Quartet" Medici Quartet"
In the interview Paul Robertson said that Faure's friend Vincent d'Indy had apologised for the quartet.
As above the dementia theory is Paul Robertson's. There is some supporting evidence, Faure was eighty when he wrote it, and he wrote during its composition "I can scarcely manage to write a few lines," while Jean Chantavoine in Le Menestrel wrote of the work as "the meditation..of a pure mind."
But I think I should acknowledge that others (including you) are more expert than me in these areas. I've drawn your very valuable and considered comment to Paul Robertson's attention. Let's hope he may explain his theory better than me!

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