Monday, August 8, 2011

The Harmonious Discord of Ira Altshuler and His Musical Therapy Program at Eloise

 Music Master X

In 1938 the diminutive Swiss born psychiatrist Ira Altshuler became a pioneer in the use of music therapy as a successful treatment for the mentally ill. While monitoring his patients at Eloise State Hospital outside of Detroit, Michigan he noticed that erstwhile mentally hibernating patients would suddenly jerk into movement and began to dance, sing and coquettishly preen to certain songs while more violent subjects would be soothed into purposeful activities, quietude and even lulled to sleep, with, of course, many variations in between. He found that group therapy worked best as all patients had different reactions to certain styles and that many responded favorably to music within their own ethnic persuasion. Furthermore, live music had the most outwardly positive effect and trios playing instrumentals were effective due to their mutability between genres.

The doctor, a musician himself, accompanied by upwards of 35 hospital pianos (mostly privately donated), his assistants and an assembly of 500-800 patients per day would go through an hourly routine with each group first practicing rhythm sets to pique their interest in the therapy and then a period of melodious song to encourage interaction and participation. Sometimes patients would ask for certain tunes and even join in on the sessions, transforming their madness into a temporal but workable and interested mundanity.

While still advocating the use of more traditional rehabilitation and psychiatric practices such as shock treatment, drugs and medical procedures, Altshuler believed that the success rate for "recovery" -- his word for completion of the institutional program sufficient for a discharge -- was 4 times as high (15% opposed to 60% respectively) when musical therapy was used in accompaniment with standard procedures. He believed alternative methods such as the one he employed to be the difference between running a modern psychiatric hospital as opposed to merely an insane asylum.

Whether by necessity, curiosity, gimmick or as an earnest attempt to further the therapeutic reach of the musical approach, Altshuler brought forth two musical prodigies from the asylum for public perusal in the late 1940s. The first, "Maestro X" (Time Magazine referred to the man as "Horace F"; both names were pseudonyms for obvious reasons of confidentiality.) initially performed before a private group of 300 music teachers at a conference in Detroit who lauded the "mad pianist" as a genius and a virtuoso.

Then, on March 10, 1946, with his graying 70 year old mother in attendance, the 45-year-old mental patient, both incommunicado and detached from reality, competently fumbled through a strangely distorted Beethoven sonata (other accounts suggested that there were 3 pieces performed besides Moonlight Sonata, including a flawless rendering of the Cadenza from the Concerto in D Minor by Mozart) before playing a favorite Chopin Nocturne to round out the 2 1/2 minute program from inside the drab asylum. The concert aired over CBS radio's "We the People" program and reached millions of listeners. It was the perfect platform to display Altshuler's effectiveness as a psychiatric administrator though the accomplishment was tempered by the fact that "X" was an accomplished musician who had studied under the pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch while he was serving as conductor for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It was the sudden death of his teacher in 1936 that effectively rendered him infantile and unable to care for himself thereafter.

The concert was hailed as a success and his doting mother, who had 9 years earlier brought him to the asylum, gushed, "Wasn't it wonderful?" to an eager throng of reporters. Even though his mannerisms that night were mostly mechanical and his blank stare rendered no feeling or acknowledgment, she hadn't seen him that relaxed in nearly a decade. The accolades didn't stop there as noted New York conductor, composer and less emotionally biased observer, Howard Hanson tagged him a "genius" and further explicated, "He is an extraordinary case. He would play long periods with perfect phrasing and tone quality and then would begin a series of curious lapses such as adding extra beats. This made the whole thing seem strange and spooky. Then he would return to normal training."

This success, however, didn't translate into improved mental health for the savant. While he made progress in choosing his own music, his later preference of Bach over Chopin was seen as a positive development from a perceived feminine disposition to a more masculine one, had more frequent interactions, spoke occasionally and seemed happier, his over all condition never traversed the recovery gulf. As of 1957 he was entering his 20th year of being institutionalized and in a therapeutic stalemate. He was 57 years old at the time and most likely never overcame his affliction, though I could uncover no evidence to tilt the final verdict in either direction.

The Skid Row Tchaikovsky

The case of Earnest Salisbury, while not as theatrical as Maestro X's, is notable just the same. His transformation took only two years between the walls of the asylum from skid row alcoholic ne'er-do-well to composer of a well-received symphony aptly titled, "Eloise" but served as a secondary beacon in the career of the noted psychiatrist.

Salisbury was a troubled youth who ran away from home and quit school when he was 14 years old. He frequented flophouses, saloons and the seedy part of life for the better portion of a "ten-year period of debauchery" while drinking anything he could get his hands on from nail polish to paint thinner to rubbing alcohol and cheap wine. He worked only as necessary to sustain his existence and stole when had to. When he finally collapsed in the street in 1947 from a cocktail of cheap alcohol and a box of aspirin, police dragged him to Eloise where doctors surprisingly discovered scraps of paper with notes written about Tchaikovsky's music on them. As if he were some kind of musical Bukowski expunged from the gutter, the staff at the hospital transformed him into a classical composer of sorts.

As with Maestro X, Salisbury's concert, which was performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at the state fair, was played to a national audience via NBC radio on August 19, 1948. The 80 piece orchestra played the tempestuous and dissonant symphony before 15,000 spectators and drew a rousing ovation both from the audience and music critics alike. Afterwards, Salisbury, called to the stage by Conductor Walter Poole, spoke of "putting confidence in mental hospitals" because they did him "a lot of good". Dr. Altshuler said of the performance "This work is a tonal picture of Salisbury's return to reality through music." He was released from the asylum two weeks later and enrolled in the Detroit Conservatory of Music.

Harmonious Discord in Crescendo

If the symphony of the Skid Row Tchaikovsky expended a tempestuous flare then the personal life of Ira Altshuler at the time was a red hot comet in comparison. In October of 1946 his wife Ira Altshuler sued him for divorce. Stating that her husband was a genius she wryly exclaimed, " can't live with a genius." Noting their differences she also stated that though he was supporting her and their children that he likely didn't know about the proceedings, hinted that they were leading separate lives and the probability of extramarital affairs by the good doctor. With such tender phrasing as, "He's still living here, but this place is so large that he could be in one part of the house and I in another and we'd never see each other." and "You might ask the blond. Oh, blond is just a general term people use nowadays... It could be a brunette." it was obvious that she was being subtly coy for the sake of her children, his professional career and her stake in the melee.

If there was a remnant of suspicion left in Mrs. Altshuler's mind about infidelity it was probably assuaged in the days following the finalization of their divorce in the spring of 1949 when the doctor and his new bride, 23 year old Paula Drew, eloped and married. Miss Drew had minor success as both an actress and singer in Hollywood and on Broadway but had returned to her hometown to live with her parents and perform in a local production of a play. The former Tamara Dubin of Dearborn had known Altshuler from childhood, as he had served as the family physician, and they rekindled the acquaintance when the doctor phoned her and asked her to dinner. With both of their backgrounds rooted in music, and despite the gulf in age between them, it was a convenient excuse for their relationship. The pairing would be shorter than the run of any assorted one hit wonder singing sensations.

After only 43 days of marriage the doctor sought a divorce on grounds that his new bride was devoid of the talents that make a good housewife, was vulgar and kept his children from visiting them at their apartment. She countered that he tried to hypnotize her, shoot her with a hypodermic needle for experimental reasons, was jealous and controlling and threatened to throw acid in the young starlet's face to mar her good looks among other abuses. Altshuler decried all of the charges as "ridiculous" and a "publicity stunt."

Not only must it have been a professional embarrassment for the psychiatrist but the affair also interrupted the composition of the symphony he had been working on with his young patient Salisbury, though it was only a temporary setback as was shown earlier in the success of the musical venture. Altshuler would continue with his important psychiatric work at the Wayne County General Hospital until 1963 when he retired after 30 years of service. The author of many papers on music therapy and a short book entitled "Music Therapy: Retrospect and Perspective (1952)" died from injuries in a car accident in 1968 at the age of 74.



Music Therapy; The Prescott Evening Courier, May 31, 1943


Music Medicine In Regular Doses Helps Mental Patients; The Palm Beach Post; January 18, 1944


Mad Pianist Enthralls 300 Music Masters; The Schenectady Gazette, February 23, 1946

Mad Pianist Enthralls 300 With Weird Concert; The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 25, 1946

Mad Pianist Thrills 300 Music Teachers; The Deseret News, February 25, 1946

Mad Pianist Thrills Audience By Playing Difficulty Concert; The Southeast Missourian, February 25, 1946

Muscian Sane Only At Piano; The Spokesman-Review, March 6, 1946

Mad Pianist Is Present At Concert; The Deseret News, March 8, 1946

Mad Pianist Broadcasts At 11 P. M. Tomorrow; The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 9, 1946

Mad Pianist To Make Radio Debut Sunday; The Meriden Record, March 9, 1946

Mad Pianist In Radio Debut From Hospital; The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 11, 1946

Mad Pianist's Radio Debut Is Successful; The Schenectady Gazette, March 11, 1946

Mother Elated By Radio Debut Of Mad Pianist; The Lewiston Daily Sun, March 11, 1946

Musician On Road To Mental Health; The Free Lance-Star, March 11, 1946

'The Man Known To The World...'; The Portsmouth Times, March 14, 1946

Psychiatrist Being Sued; The Windsor Daily Star, October 17, 1946


Improvement Is Noted In Mental Case Patient; The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, April 28, 1947

Musical Therapy Rescues Insane Alcoholic's Mind; The St. Joseph News-Press, November 2, 1947


Mad Pianist Remains That Way Except In Music World; The Evening Independent, March 5, 1948

Music Of Mad Pianist Still Echoes Through Halls Of Hospital For Insane; The Meriden Daily Journal, March 5, 1948

Mad Pianist Still Playing Delicate Music In Asylum; The Free Lance-Star, March 6, 1948

Mad Pianist Who Startled Music World Still Confined; The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, March 10, 1948

Maestro X Still Patient; The Eugene Register-Guard , March 11, 1948

Maestro X's Delicate Music Has Failed To Cure Insanity; The Milwaukee Journal, March 5, 1948

Fights Off Insanity By Writing Symphony; The Telegraph-Herald, March 15, 1948

Young Man Wins Over Madness; The Tuscaloosa News, March 15, 1948

Writes Orchestra Symphony, The St. Petersburg Times, August 13, 1948

Audience Cheers Mental Patient's Eloise Symphony;  The Meriden Record, August 20, 1948

Ex-Alcoholic Elated As His Music Featured; The Lodi News-Sentinel, August 20, 1948

Mental Patient's Shymphony Gets Ovation From 15,000; The Pittsburgh Press, August 20, 1948

Skid Row Composer Acclaimed, The Binghamton Press, August 20, 1948

Symphony Composition Is Aid To Patient; The Youngstown Vindicator, August 20, 1948

Maestro X's Doctor Uses Music To Unlock The Minds Of The Mad; The Milwaukee Journal, September 8, 1948

Cured By Music, Insane Inmate Given Liberty; The Owosso Argus-Press, September 17, 1948


Doctor Who Used Music On Patients Hits Discord;  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 13, 1949

Husband Accused Of Insanity Plot; The Pittsburgh Press, July 13, 1949

'Jealous' Psychiatrist's Wife Wants Divorce; The Milwaukee Journal, July 13, 1949

Actress Charges Husband Tried To Drive Her Crazy; The News and Courier, July 14, 1949

Files Cross Suit; The Beaver Valley Times, July 15, 1949

43 Days After His Marriage, The Psychiatrist, Who Thought Music Would Help, Wanted A Divorce; The Milwaukee Sentinel; August 7, 1949


Mr. X, Brilliant Pianist, Is Still In Mental Hospital; The St. Joseph News-Press, October 23, 1958


Twenty Die In Michigan Car Crashes; The Toledo Blade, March 18, 1968

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