The Wit and Humor of America, in ten volumes, edited by Marshal P. Wilder, published by Funk and Wagnalls Company, has copyright dates of MDCCCCVII (Bobbs-Merrill Company) and MDCCCCXI (The Thwing Company). The whole thing is online courtesy of Project Gutenberg.
So, anyway. One evening last week Leslie and I were sitting in the den, probably watching something boring and forgettable on television, when I happened to pick up Volume VI. Thumbing through it, my eye fell upon the title "The Genial Idiot Discusses the Music Cure" by John Kendrick Bangs.
This turned out to be a short story in which our hero, the Genial Idiot, confers with his doctor, Capsule M.D., about the efficacy of using music to cure physical ills. In spite of the medical professional's skepticism, the Idiot proceeds to offer copious anecdotal evidence that music does indeed have healing powers and eventually suggests it will soon become a dominant medical treatment modality. What was apparently just a silly joke over a hundred years ago has now become an accepted treatment in our times. Thus civilization advances, first comedy, then remedy.
Of course, from my all-too-modern viewpoint, the story is neither funny nor well-written. I have no way to evaluate how someone would have reacted to it in 1907 or thereabouts. Probably rolling on the floor laughing, or whatever acronym for ROFL the hipsters used back then.
So, anyway, my interest in Bangs' story was piqued by mentions of composer Richard Wagner, who would have been ever so popular during those times. And, as you know, Wagner's awful, endless opera music is one of Mixed Meters' favorite bugaboos.
First the Idiot tells the Doctor about claims for the healing power of music which he has read in the press:
It may not be able to perform a surgical operation like that which is required for the removal of a leg, and I don't believe even Wagner ever composed a measure that could be counted on successfully to eliminate one's vermiform appendix from its chief sphere of usefulness, but for other things, like measles, mumps, the snuffles, or indigestion, it is said to be wonderfully efficacious.Then, after describing his own experience of how his insomnia was cured by attending both Parsifal and Gotterdammerung, the Idiot adds this:
Clearly Wagner, according to my way of thinking, then deserves to rank among the most effective narcotics known to modern science. I have tried all sorts of other things - sulfonal, trionel, bromide powders, and all the rest and not one of them produced anything like the soporific results that two doses of Wagner brought about in one instant, and best of all there was no reaction. No splitting headache or shaky hand the next day, but just the calm, quiet, contented feeling that goes with the sense of having got completely rested up.Doctor Capsule is unimpressed. He responds:
You run a dreadful risk, however. The Wagner habit is a terrible thing to acquire, Mr. Idiot.The Idiot is not worried about getting addicted to Wagner.
I am in no danger of becoming a victim to it while it costs from five to seven dollars a dose.That's about $120 to $170 in today's money. Sounds about right for a half-way decent seat at a live opera. (If we're lucky maybe Martin Shkreli will buy up all rights to Wagner and raise the price by 5000 per cent.)
The Idiot then tells another story about his friend, an artist, whose upset stomach was cured by a neighbor playing Arthur Sullivan's The Lost Chord on a cornet.
As the story concludes our Idiot makes predictions on how music will, in the future, cure nearly all medical ailments and revolutionize the medical industry.
If a small boy goes swimming and catches a cold in his head and is down with a fever his nurse, an expert on the accordion, can bring him back to health again with three bars of Under the Bamboo Tree after each meal.
So, anyway, I'm sure that by now you're anxious to read The Genial Discusses the Music Cure. It's available widely online. You can even find audio versions.
For your convenience I scanned and OCR'd and posted the story myself. Read it right here on Mixed Meters. It might cure your insomnia better than a Wagner opera.
For further reading:
- Mixed Meters discusses Wagner as opiate.
- An early MM review of a book which called out to me from Leslie's collection.
- An MM article about a scrap of paper advertising old medical devices.
- An MM review of a PKD short story involving classical music.