Bach goes un­der the knife of an English eye sur­geon

BBC Music Magazine - - The Full Score -

As JS Bach ap­proached his 65th birth­day, his busy life had started to take its toll on his health. The church au­thor­i­ties in Leipzig had al­ready sounded out a pos­si­ble suc­ces­sor to him as Can­tor at St Thomas’s should the un­think­able hap­pen and, of a more im­me­di­ate con­cern, his sight had also de­te­ri­o­rated. A!er years of por­ing over manuscripts in semi-dark­ness not only was he scarcely able to see but, to quote his first bi­og­ra­pher Jo­hann Forkel, he also ‘had a very painful dis­or­der in the eyes’.

Never fear, how­ever, as help was soon to be at hand. Step for­ward one John Tay­lor, the em­i­nent Bri­tish eye sur­geon, on whose glit­ter­ing CV was listed the post of o"cial oculist to Ge­orge II and whose pre­vi­ous pa­tients had in­cluded the Pope, no less. Some­thing of a celebrity and no stranger to the power of PR, Tay­lor spread his fame by tak­ing him­self on Euro­pean tours, on which he would bring his heal­ing pow­ers to the peo­ple of one city be­fore mov­ing onto the next. Be­fore ar­riv­ing at each venue, he would send pam­phlets in ad­vance

to alert the lo­cals of his im­pend­ing visit, nor did he ex­actly keep a low pro­file when there – trav­el­ling ev­ery­where in a lav­ish car­riage dec­o­rated with pic­tures of eyes, he would pref­ace each op­er­a­tion with a pub­lic lec­ture, de­liv­ered with Cicero-like or­a­tor­i­cal skill.

Tay­lor’s tour of Spring 1750 took in the city of Leipzig where, on 1 April, Bach came un­der the great man’s knife. Though Tay­lor had treat­ments for all man­ner of oc­u­lar ail­ments in his ar­moury, in this in­stance a rel­a­tively rou­tine op­er­a­tion for cataracts was what was re­quired. Known as ‘couch­ing’, his method in­volved insert­ing a hooked nee­dle through the cornea and into the cloudy ma­te­rial in the eye and break­ing it up into pieces. A painful pro­ce­dure, yes, but also, ac­cord­ing to the con­tem­po­rary news­pa­per ac­counts of Tay­lor’s work, an e!ec­tive one. A"er the first op­er­a­tion, Bach un­der­went a sec­ond treat­ment in the fol­low­ing week, at which point Tay­lor packed his bags and headed o! to this next port of call, Ber­lin. Job done.

Re­ports sug­gest that, at first, Tay­lor’s treat­ment of Bach was a suc­cess, with the com­poser re­gain­ing ‘full sharp­ness of his sight’. Note the ‘at first’, how­ever. Very soon a"er, he had be­come com­pletely blind – Tay­lor was, in fact, lit­tle more than a quack. A roy­ally en­dorsed quack, yes, but still a quack. With scant re­gard paid to hy­giene while he worked, his op­er­a­tions were fre­quently fol­lowed by se­ri­ous med­i­cal com­pli­ca­tions, more

Tay­lor’s op­er­a­tions were fre­quently fol­lowed by se­ri­ous com­pli­ca­tions

o"en than not brought on by in­fec­tion. Con­ve­niently, though, he was rarely around to face the ire of his pa­tients and their fam­i­lies as, by the time the full e!ects of his treat­ment had be­come ev­i­dent, the Tay­lor band­wagon had long rolled out of town.

De­spite his con­di­tion, Bach con­tin­ued to com­pose, with his du­ti­ful son-in-law Jo­hann Christoph Alt­nickol putting his thoughts onto pa­per. But his time was run­ning out. When, in July, he mirac­u­lously claimed to have re­cov­ered his sight, it was be­lieved to be lit­tle more than a hal­lu­ci­na­tion. Within hours he had slipped into a coma and by the end of the month, the great­est com­poser of his era was dead. Whether or not his death came di­rectly as a re­sult of Tay­lor’s treat­ment re­mains un­known.

Tay­lor him­self con­tin­ued his tour­ing lifestyle, and it is be­lieved that he might also have op­er­ated on Han­del in 1758 – again, shortly be­fore the com­poser’s death. Even­tu­ally, how­ever, his au­di­ences and pa­tients be­came scep­ti­cal. When he died in ob­scu­rity in 1772, he was him­self, iron­i­cally, blind.

The eyes have it: John Tay­lor, trav­el­ling oculist ex­traor­di­naire

Blind hope:Bach’s vi­sion was blighted by cataracts; (be­low) Thomas Patch’s 1770 car­i­ca­ture of John Tay­lor

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