Writing Music About Alzheimer's: One Composer's Story

Nov 13, 2017

It's National Alzheimer's Awareness Month. WRTI's Susan Lewis reports on a musical work commissioned by a man to honor his parents who died of the disease. The work for chorus, soloists, and small orchestra surprised even the composer in its power to heal.   

Radio script:

[Music: Cohen, Alzheimer’s Stories]

They created a blog for chorus members to leave personal anecdotes of experiences with the disease; stories of loss and pain, but also tenderness and humor.

Susan Lewis: Composer Robert Cohen was at first reluctant to tackle Alzheimer’s, the insidious disease that robs people of memories, rational thought, and sense of self.

Robert Cohen: My initial reaction was that it was impossible project—what could you do?

SL: From 1906, when the first patient was identified, the number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s has grown to over 26 million. Cohen and librettist Herschel Garfein learned that as other faculties decline, the connection to music hangs on.

RC: You can not know where you are, who you are, who your children are; you can be unable to speak English, and yet if you play a song for somebody, they’ll be able to sing it back to you exactly as they heard it because somewhere inside, at the most basic level, is music. 

SL: They created a blog for chorus members to leave personal anecdotes of experiences with the disease;  stories of loss and pain, but also tenderness and humor. The piece ends with ‘love and music are the last things to go; sing anything.”

RC: It came from a story of someone going to a nursing home, to see their father or mother, and someone who came up to them and said, sing to me, sing to me.  And they said, what do you want me to sing? He said, sing anything.

SL: Music, more than a way to tell a story—a way to connect and give hope.