Composer Health Series Post #4: Antonín Dvořák

By Sara Peach

Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904)

Photographer: Unknown

How old was he when he died?

62, which is not tragically young per se, but still on the young side by today’s standards.

How did he die?

It’s unclear. He began suffering from a pain in his side in late March 1904, according John Clapham, who wrote a biography of the composer in the 1960s. According to various sources, including an extensive Czech website devoted to the composer’s life, he then caught either a “chill” or influenza. After feeling well enough to eat soup with his family on May 1, he fell ill again and died that day, possibly of a stroke.

Yikes! Dvořák’s first three children with his wife Anna all died in infancy.

How would today’s doctors have treated him?

For influenza symptoms starting within the past two days, said D’Silva, “I might prescribe an antiviral medication, although it’s controversial how much it helps. The patient should rest, drink plenty of fluids, use over-the-counter medications for fever and muscle aches. Severe symptoms may need care in the hospital to support breathing and treat complications.”

But the best way to approach influenza is to prevent it through vaccination. “Everyone over six months of age should get a flu shot every year,” she said. “This can limit the size of the epidemic during flu season – November to March – and help protect our youngest, oldest, and frailest community members from this highly contagious virus.”

A stroke is an emergency requiring a 911 call, D’Silva said. As soon as symptoms begin – like sudden weakness or numbness in the face or a limb, or vision or speech trouble – every minute counts and neurology expertise improves outcomes. Doctors can treat strokes using a variety of methods, including medication and surgery, depending on the type of stroke.

Which pieces of his is the DMO performing?

“In Nature’s Realm” and “Song to the Moon,” from his opera “Rusalka.” Come hear this composer’s enduring work at our spring 2018 concert on May 3!

Note: this post is part #4 of a series on the health of classical composers. Don’t miss post #1, an introduction, post #2 on the death of Mozart, and post #3 on the death of Schubert.

Disclaimer: This is a blog post on an orchestra’s website, not a substitute for medical advice. Please see a doctor for any medical concerns you may have.

Composer Health Series Post #3: Franz Schubert

By Sara Peach

Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)

Artist: Wilhelm August Rieder

How old was he when he died?


What was his final illness?

As with Mozart, the cause of Schubert’s death is debated. Schubert contracted syphilis a few years before his death, but his final illness may have been typhoid fever, a disease spread by contaminated water and food.

Whatever the cause of his illnesses, we do know he suffered greatly. The composer wrote, “I feel I am the unhappiest most miserable person in the entire world. Consider someone whose health will never improve and who, in despair over this, makes things worse instead of better, whose brightest hopes have come to naught, to whom the joy of love and friendship can offer but pain at the most.”

Yikes! Doctors may have treated Schubert’s syphilis with mercury, a poison that was a common treatment at the time.

How would today’s doctors have treated him?

D’Silva said she would treat a syphilis infection of unknown duration with an intramuscular injection of benzathine penicillin every week for three weeks. However, if the disease were affecting the nervous system, the patient would need intravenous penicillin infusions for at least 10 days, she said.

“Penicillin can stop the progression of syphilis, but unfortunately will not reverse neurologic damage that has already occurred,” she said.

Which piece of his is the DMO performing?

“The Unfinished Symphony,” which Schubert began composing in 1822. Come hear this composer’s enduring work at our spring 2018 concert on May 3!

Note: this post is part #3 of a series on the health of classical composers. Don’t miss post #1, an introduction, and post #2, regarding the untimely death of Mozart. Keep an eye out for posts #4 next week!

Disclaimer: This is a blog post on an orchestra’s website, not a substitute for medical advice. Please see a doctor for any medical concerns you may have.

Composer Health Series Post #2: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

By Sara Peach

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)

Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Artist: Johann Nepomuk della Croce

How old was he when he died?


What was his final illness? The cause of Mozart’s death has been debated for centuries, though it’s clear he was not poisoned as depicted in the movie “Amadeus.” More than 150 possible diagnoses for his final illness have been offered, according to music historian Robert Greenberg, who examined the leading theories in an episode of Classical Classroom, a Houston Public Media podcast. Greenberg says that Mozart most likely died after a recurrence of rheumatic fever, which is caused by an inadequately treated infection of a certain type of streptococcus bacteria. In rheumatic fever, the body’s immune system fights its own tissues, including heart valves and joints, said Dr. Marisa D’Silva, principal flutist with the DMO and internal medicine doctor at Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Duke University Medical Center.

Greenberg isn’t alone in identifying streptococcus as a cause of Mozart’s death. A 2009 investigation by European researchers , based on Viennese death records, concluded that Mozart was infected with streptococcus bacteria during an epidemic and died of complications.

How would today’s doctors have treated him?

“For an acute streptococcal infection such as strep throat, confirmed by examination and appropriate testing, I would prescribe amoxicillin tablets for 10 days,” D’Silva said.

She said amoxicillin, an antibiotic, can shorten the length of the illness and prevent it from spreading to other people. “More importantly, it reduces the chance of developing complications such as rheumatic fever,” she added.

Yikes! At age 11, Mozart contracted smallpox, a now-eradicated disease with a mortality rate of 30 percent. In other words, classical music almost missed out on all of his mature compositions.

Which piece of his is the DMO performing?

The overture to his opera, “The Magic Flute.” Come hear this composer’s enduring work at our spring 2018 concert on May 3!

Note: this post is part #2 of a series on the health of classical composers. Don’t miss post #1, an introduction, and keep an eye out for posts #3 and #4 over the next two weeks!

Disclaimer: This is a blog post on an orchestra’s website, not a substitute for medical advice. Please see a doctor for any medical concerns you may have.

Why did so many classical composers die tragically young?

By Sara Peach

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed more than 600 musical works, including dozens of symphonies, piano concertos, operas, and string quartets – all of that just in a few decades.

Early on the morning of December 5, 1791, he died, aged 35.

Mozart was just one of a number of beloved composers to die before reaching age 40.

Austrian composer Franz Schubert was 31 when he passed away. Georges Bizet, best known for the opera “Carmen,” died at 36. Virtuoso pianist Fryderyk Chopin left the world at 39, which is the same age that German romantic composer Carl Maria von Weber was when he died.

Those premature deaths deprived the world of an untold number of yet-to-be-written musical works. They also spawned conspiracy theories – in Mozart’s case, that he had been poisoned by a rival.

A chart showing the rise of life expectancy in England, from 37 in 1700 to 77 in the early 2000s.

But the mundane reality is that composers died young because they lived in times and places where infectious diseases like typhoid fever, rheumatic fever, and tuberculosis were common, and many people lived only a few decades. In fact, the life expectancy for a person born in England in 1820 was only 41.

As a result of modern medicine and public health interventions – a subject of interest to the Durham Medical Orchestra’s members – many infectious diseases have declined in rich countries. As a result, the average lifespan of a person born in a place with good healthcare access increased by more than 30 years during the last century. In other words, though there are no guarantees in life, a baby born today with Mozart’s talents could easily live twice as long as he did.

Read on to learn about the illnesses suffered by a few famous composers and how modern doctors would have treated them. And then mark your calendar to hear us perform works by those composers on April 22 and May 3 in Durham.

Note: this post is part #1 of a series on the health of classical composers. Want to learn more? See post #2 for details on our first composer: Mozart!

Disclaimer: This is a blog post on an orchestra’s website, not a substitute for medical advice. Please see a doctor for any medical concerns you may have.

Interview with a real-life composer!

By Sara Peach

How does a person become a composer? Do you have to be a child prodigy, like Mozart was? Where do melodies come from? Composer Dayton Kinney, a doctoral student in composition at Duke University, answers all of those questions and more in a conversation about her new work, called “The Orchestra Pit.”

Dayton Kinney

“The Orchestra Pit” is based on a children’s book of the same name by Johanna Wright. The Durham Medical Orchestra will premiere the new music on December 10, 3 p.m., Baldwin Auditorium at Duke University.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Durham Medical Orchestra: How did you decide to become a composer?

Dayton Kinney: It was mostly by chance. Something about music had always interested me as a child. I kept asking Santa Claus for piano lessons, and finally at nine years old I began piano lessons. At 12, I began taking a college-level class.

Composition was not on my radar until after I took a college-level ear-training class. The instructor, Alla Elana Cohen, became my composition teacher. Because of a chance opening in her studio, and due to my progress in her class, she offered me a spot in her composition studio when I was 14 years old. It changed my life because from that moment on, I just wanted to be a composer and nothing else.

DMO: You hear stories about composers in history being quite young when they start to compose music, like Mozart was. Is that typical nowadays, or is it more normal for people to become composers later in life?

DK: It’s a mixed bag. There are some people who begin composition very young – at the elementary-school level. Sometimes they begin composition after they’ve had a career of performing. But for me, it happened when I was a teenager.

DMO: Are there any composers who you feel have particularly influenced your music?

DK: No, I can’t I can’t say any one particular composer has influenced me, because I take my inspiration from a variety of sources.

DMO: Like what?

DK: Such as creating musical direction and gestures from everyday actions and movements in my environment. I could be interested in the way someone walks. I would watch the person walk across the street, watch how many times they stop, their pace, their breath. Maybe they’ll turn around. Maybe they take a turn to the left or turn to the right, and musically I’m creating my patterns and melodies based on interpretations of those movements.

It could also be people having a conversation and being inspired by the inflections of their voice. My music tends to have multiple different melodies and themes interspersed and interacting with each other, so that it’s almost like watching multiple conversations or actions at once. I liken it to a not-so-busy day in a cafe. You can hear a couple of different conversations at the same time.

DMO: So do you like hanging around in coffee shops looking for inspiration?

DK: Oh, it’s everywhere. Sometimes, I will be inspired by leaves rustling on a walk or drops of water hitting a piece of metal – not just the sound that it creates, but also the rippling movement of that drop of water.

DMO: How do you actually go about composing your melodies?

DK: Melodies? Oh, that’s never an easy question for any composer!

I tend to take walks. I think about the text. Or, ‘what is an interesting tune that would catch someone’s attention?’ I try to think about them on my own, with just a piece of paper or my computer. And then I try them on the piano – a couple of different ideas. So, it’s kind of going back and forth between something that I am composing in my mind and trying it out on the piano, while trying several iterations of these ideas.

DMO: What were your goals in transforming the children’s book “The Orchestra Pit” into music?

DK: I had this in mind for children, making sure it’s accessible to children – but also enjoyable for adults.

I wanted to make sure that the moments were obvious, for humor. There are pauses. There are very poignant moments. There are jokes that children would understand and that the adults would enjoy, too.

I thought it’d be fun to do slide whistles, harkening back to cartoons I grew up with, like “Tom and Jerry” and various other cartoons from early Saturday mornings.

DMO: Are there any moments in the music that you’d like the audience to listen for?

DK: I would highlight the beginning. I am building up a sense of something silly and everyday, when the snake is going about its business and hasn’t quite gotten lost yet.

Another favorite portion of mine is when the snake first realizes that he/she has stumbled upon the orchestra pit. I love that section of creating the sense of awe and wonder, of pulling back the curtains – and the snake is amazed, and recognizes they have fallen into the orchestra pit.

Want to hear the rest of “The Orchestra Pit”? Come to the DMO’s concert on December 10, 3 p.m., Baldwin Auditorium at Duke University.

Interview: What it’s like to have your book turned into a work of classical music

By Sara Peach

If you come to the DMO’s upcoming concert (and you should: December 10, 3 p.m., Baldwin Auditorium at Duke), you’ll hear a new work that is a bit like a modern-day version of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”

It’s called “The Orchestra Pit,” by Duke composer Dayton Kinney, and it tells the story of a snake that wanders out of its snake pit and into an orchestra pit. There, the snake meets all of the instruments of the orchestra – and startles the musicians.

The new composition for full orchestra and narrator. It’s based on a 2014 children’s book of the same title by Oregon-based author and illustrator Johanna Wright. For the premiere of the new work the DMO has a treat planned: Wright will be in the house to serve as the narrator.

The DMO caught up with Wright by phone to talk about her own background in classical music, how that inspired her to write “The Orchestra Pit,” and what it’s like to hand your creative work over to a composer.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Durham Medical Orchestra: How did you decide you wanted to create children’s books?

Johanna Wright: I actually made a few kids books when I was pretty little. I was probably seven or eight when I first started stapling them together and putting stories together. I was probably 11 when I really decided that that was something that I want to pursue.

DMO: One thing I really love about your book is that it’s similar to “Peter and the Wolf,” in that the readers have a chance to meet each of the instruments in the orchestra. Was introducing children to the orchestra part of your motivation for creating it?

JW: It was! I grew up actually playing the violin. I played in a youth symphony in high school. And every spring or fall we would play “Peter and the Wolf” and have all the schools in the district come and listen. And I just loved it. They would do this cool thing with the orchestra where they would make these pathways through the orchestra, so the kids could come and watch the orchestra while we played. It was just a really memorable time for me and so I always loved that piece. And I was absolutely thinking of that when I made “The Orchestra Pit.”

DMO: You’ve also said you had a flash of inspiration while you were at a live musical performance. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

JW: I had really wanted to make an orchestra book for a long time. I just couldn’t think of a good hook or something that would connect it in a way that was fun.

I was watching the Portland Cello Project. They are a group of musicians that play the cello, and they do different arrangements. Sometimes they’ll play Nirvana covers, and sometimes they’ll play classical. But I was at a performance of theirs, and it just clicked for me. I was working on another story about a snake, and it was just like peanut butter and jelly in that moment, when I was like, ‘Wait, these guys can go together, where there’s a snake that ends up in an orchestra pit.’ And I thought that was really funny. It just was a fully formed idea and that was awesome. It doesn’t always happen like that.

DMO: It’s so interesting to me that your book was inspired by music in these different ways, and now it’s being transformed back into music.

JW: I know! It is so exciting for me! I can’t even. I can’t even. It’s so great.

DMO: What is it like for you to hand your creative work over to a composer?

JW: Oh my gosh, it’s just thrilling.

The book process takes a really long time. I wrote the story way back in 2009, and it took many years before it actually hit the shelves. It was a long process there. I feel like if you have a creative project that is fresh, it can be trickier to let go of wanting it to be a certain way. I haven’t thought about “The Orchestra Pit” in the more recent days, so this is just so exciting to see what happens.

DMO: And we’re excited about it too. What do you hope that the audience might take from the performance of the Orchestra Pit?

JW: I hope they get the joy and the fun of music that I had, especially hearing something like “Peter and the Wolf.” I like the idea of it just being kind of more fun and open and loose and exciting and inspiring people and kids to look further into the orchestra and music.

DMO: Orchestras have a reputation for being very serious and highbrow. The players wear formal clothing, and you’re supposed to be very quiet and listen carefully, and to me, part of the humor of your book is looking at your paintings of very serious musicians kind of freaking out because there’s a snake. I wonder if that was part of your intention to poke a little bit of fun at serious classical music.

JW: Yes, exactly! I think that’s definitely just part of my personality. I love playing in orchestras so much, but I also feel like I’m a pretty goofy person. So I liked being able to bring those two elements together and hopefully have that resonate with kids and parents. Sometimes, I feel like people feel like they can’t be a part of something like that if they aren’t a certain way, and I like mixing it up a little bit, because of course you can be silly and fun and enjoy classical music as well.

How Aaron Copland wove cowboy tunes into “Billy the Kid”

By Sara Peach

When Aaron Copland was first asked to write the music for the ballet “Billy the Kid,” he felt wary.

Copland had been born in Brooklyn, the son of Jewish and Eastern European immigrants, and he’d studied composition in France. “I knew nothing about the Wild West,” he would later write.

Despite his qualms, Copland managed to write almost cinematic music that evokes images of the prairie, old frontier towns, gun battles, and starry Western nights.

How did he do it?

With cowboy tunes.

Copland wove the folk songs of the West throughout his ballet. In some cases, he copied the tunes almost literally into the score. In other places, he fractured and distorted the melodies so much that they are hardly recognizable, much as Pablo Picasso used fragments of faces and bodies in his paintings.

In the examples below, you’ll hear a recording of several of the cowboy tunes that Copland borrowed, followed by a recording that starts in the specific place where the ballet suite quotes those melodies.

Take a listen, and then come hear the Durham Medical Orchestra’s live performance of “Billy the Kid” and other works on Sunday, December 10, 2017, at 3 p.m. in Baldwin Auditorium at Duke University.

“Great Grand-dad”


“Git Along, Little Dogies”


“The Old Chisholm Trail”


“The Streets Of Laredo”


“Goodbye, Old Paint”


“The Dying Cowboy”



DMO teaches kids about orchestral music

On April 1 (no fooling!), the Durham Medical Orchestra hosted a wildly successful children’s concert, with the support of the WCPE Education Fund and in partnership with Lakewood Elementary School, the Emily K Center, and Girl Scout Troop 1158.

The DMO gratefully acknowledges the support of the WCPE Education Fund for this event.

Photo credit: Eric Monson

The concert began with an introduction to the orchestra and to the different instruments and instrument families.  Conductor Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant guided the audience through several examples of orchestral music, from Markowski’s Joyride to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and finishing up with several popular works like music from Frozen.

Children (and their families!) learned about different musical terms, how music can change speed and volume, and how the conductor helps the orchestra play together, using the same styles.  Some lucky children even got the chance to do their own conducting!

Photo credit: Eric Monson

The concert wrapped up with a raffle of door prizes and an instrument petting zoo, where children could try out different string and wind instruments.  We are grateful for the participation and donations from the following local organizations and businesses:

Children who attended the concert took home a DMO pencil, a kazoo, and a special booklet we created to help them remember what they learned.  The booklet includes lessons about orchestral music and games and activities that reinforce how fun it can be to play music!

The DMO is happy to share this educational booklet openly.  The booklet is available for download below, and it is being distributed with a Creative Commons license (specifically a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license) to encourage others to continue the important task of inspiring young musicians.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with the DMO by emailing communications [at] with any questions.

Musical Chairs a delightful success!

Kathy Silbiger and Ellen Ciompi prepare some of the musical chairs for        exhibition in the Allenton Gallery on March 5.
Photo credit: Bobbie Hardaker

We’re happy to report that our first-ever benefit event, “Musical Chairs,” was—and still is—a fun and successful foray into the broader Durham community.  The Grand Finale and Auction, held at the Durham Arts Council on March 5th, raised over $6,000, which will be split between the DMO and The Scrap Exchange Reuse Arts District, our partner in this endeavor.  Seventeen imaginative chairs and several silent auction items drew enthusiastic bidders, the food was terrific, and the music, provided by two small ensembles from the DMO, created the perfect ambiance.

)  A large crowd enjoyed great food, beautiful music, and the chance to        view and bid on our fantastic musical chairs!
Photo credit: Mohamed Ibrahim

Several of the chairs will be on display in the lobby of Baldwin Auditorium during the spring DMO concert on May 5th for concert attendees to enjoy.  After the concert, the chairs will be exhibited at The Scrap Exchange, developer of the new Lakewood Creative Arts Re-use District.

See coverage of the event from Durham Magazine, including additional photos.

Weren’t able to make the auction?
See a live video below from Flo at We Chic’d It!

A Live Stream Video from the Musical Chairs Gala and Auction