Austin Wang performs for humanities course project

Humanistic Elements of Medicine is a fourth-year elective offered by the McGovern Center. By the end of the course, students complete final projects which may take scholarly or artistic forms. While many students write literature reviews or research papers related to their specialties, other students use the project as an opportunity to share their art, writing, or music.

Austin Wang took the course in February, and his final project included performing two classical pieces on oboe, which he related to assigned readings from the course month. In both videos, Wang was accompanied by Libi Lebel on piano; Lebel is the musical director for the Texas Medical Center Orchestra.

After graduation, Wang will head to Columbia University Medical Center in New York City for a residency in neurology.

Wang shares:
“The first piece is entitled “Beau Soir,” which is French for “Beautiful Evening.” It is a French art song written by Claude Debussy, a prolific composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The song is set to a poem by Paul Bourget, a French novelist and critic. Below is one of several English translations of the poem:

When streams turn pink in the setting sun,
And a slight shudder rushes through the wheat fields,
A plea for happiness seems to rise out of all things
And it climbs up towards the troubled heart.

A please to relish the charm of life
While there is youth and the evening is fair,
For we pass away, as the wave passes:
The wave to the sea, we to the grave.

This work ties into the theme of death and dying that was examined during the last week of February. The poem hints on the inevitability of the setting sun and how death is also inescapable. But it does so through a lens of serenity, as shown through the contemplative nature of the vocal (here as an oboe) and piano lines.

Of note, when I read ‘The Shock of the Fall,’ the following passage stuck with me and reminded me of this song:

“Somewhere the last of the evening sun was dropping into the sea. But not here. There are no sunsets in the east. No spectacular endings alight with colour. In the east, day simply fades into unremarkable blackness.” (The Shock of the Fall, Page 246)

In this passage, it seems that the narrator continues to struggle with the death of his brother and almost alludes to the lack of peace, both in his mind and in the transition between day and night, between life and death.”

Wang continues:
“The second piece is entitled, “Adèle,” which is the 4th movement of a larger work, Suite from Jane Eyre, composed by Paul Reade for BBC TV’s adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre. Although this piece clearly connects to the novel character of Adèle Varens, I chose this piece partly because of the emotions elicited by listening to this work; music can be a vehicle that conveys some of the themes that encompass Jane Eyre. With regards to the elective, the humanities course examined gender and how it relates to cultural bioethics. Charlotte Bronte defied convention in some ways, as she was a woman who succeeded as an author in a time when women did not have much freedom in the home or in society.

Upon reading Holloway’s text, Private Bodies, Public Texts, the idea of a performance for my final project was really cemented once I read the following excerpt provided below:

“… I recall to the discussion… regarding the differences between a speaker’s meaning and text. Barfield’s argument in Speaker’s Meaning is that the text is expressively contractive – it reduces meaning in order to communicate intent. It is essentially different from a speaker’s meaning, which is expansive with regard to the deep structures of meaning that come into play when we hear or use language.” (Private Bodies, Public Texts, Page 23)

Despite not necessarily tying in directly to my project, the text hints upon the difference between text and the expressiveness that can come from it. It inspired me to think about sheet music and how it is merely black ink on white paper that can be interpreted in a way that conveys real meaning.

Furthermore, this idea was furthered touched upon in the memoir, Darkness Visible, by William Styron. Art is a form that can be used to express emotion and feeling, and often times that can involve expressing melancholia, as shown in the following excerpt:

“Since antiquity – in the tortured lament of Job, in the choruses of Sophocles and Aeschylus – the chroniclers of the human spirit have been wrestling with a vocabulary that might give proper expression to the desolation of melancholia. Through the course of literature and art the theme of depression has run like a durable thread of woe – from Hamlet’s soliloquy to the verses of Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, from John Donne to Hawthorne and Dostoyevski and Poe, Camus and Conrad and Virginia Woolf. In many of Albrecht Durer’s engravings, there are harrowing depictions of his own melancholia; the manic wheeling stars of Van Gogh are the precursors of the artist’s plunge into dementia and the extinction of self. It is a suffering that often tinges the music of Beethoven, of Schumann and Mahler, and permeates the darker cantatas of Bach.” (Darkness Visible, Page 82)

As powerful as words can be, art and music are mediums with the potential to chronicle the human condition in ways that words cannot. This is why the humanities, both inside and outside the realm of the medical, are so important, as they can give a voice to the seemingly indescribable and provide fullness to the human experience.”