If you’ve ever been to one of the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meetings, you probably know who Richard Kogan is. If you’ve been really lucky, you have heard one of his lecture-concerts. Dr. Kogan is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College as well as Artistic Director of the Weill Cornell Music and Medicine Program. A graduate of the Juilliard School of Music, Harvard College, and Harvard Medical School, Dr. Kogan is a virtuoso concert pianist and a distinguished psychiatrist—which turns out to be in Dr. Kogan’s case a brilliant combination.
The nascence of Dr. Kogan’s lecture-concert series was a forum on creativity and mental illness presented at the APA in 2001. In preparing for the presentation, he researched the lives of composers whose music he had played his entire life and discovered that many of them had signs and symptoms of serious psychiatric illness. Beethoven, for example, had paranoid, persecutory delusions; Tchaikovsky had recurrent bouts of suicidal depression; and Schumann had panic attacks and mood swings and spent the final years of his life in an asylum.
While recognizing the inherent impossibility of confirming retrospective diagnoses on historical figures, Dr. Kogan observed that many of the great composers of the classical music pantheon were prolific letter writers and kept meticulous diaries, thereby affording a window into their mental state for nearly every day of their adult lives. Dr. Kogan has done numerous benefit performances on these composers (playing their masterpieces and explaining their psychic distress) for organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness in an effort to reduce the stigma associated with psychiatric illness. He notes that “it seems perverse to stigmatize a group whose members include individuals who have made such extraordinary contributions to civilization.”
The link between creative genius and mental illness has been recognized since ancient times, and modern research suggests that the incidence of psychiatric illness is greater in populations of writers, artists, and musicians than in the general population. An important question for clinicians is whether treatment of a psychiatric disorder will enhance or diminish creativity. Dr. Kogan cautions that “it is important not to over-romanticize mental illness and its impact on the creative process . . . most depressed individuals are too paralyzed to compose a symphony and most psychotic individuals are too disorganized to create anything that is coherent.”
But Dr. Kogan expressed concern that presenting programs on Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and other composers with florid psychopathology who had monumental creative accomplishment while living in an era without effective psychiatric treatment might be contributing to this tendency toward over-romanticization. Hence his current focus on the case of the great Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. In recent performances including “The Psychiatrist at the Keyboard” for the BBC in London and as soloist with conductor Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Dr. Kogan explored how Rachmaninoff’s most beloved music “owes its very existence to a timely intervention by a mental health professional.”
Rachmaninoff was born in 1873 and endured considerable hardship as a youngster. His father was a wealthy landowner but squandered his entire fortune through gambling, and the family was forced to move to a cramped apartment in St. Petersburg where there was a diphtheria epidemic. The 9-year-old Sergei and his older sister contracted the illness. She died and although he eventually recovered, he was left with a fear of death that lasted his entire lifetime.