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Quartet plays at the intersection of medicine and music

Folie A Quatre violinists Psyche Loui and Justin Chen and violist Andrea Spencer practice.
Folie A Quatre violinists Psyche Loui and Justin Chen and violist Andrea Spencer practice.Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

BELMONT — Two psychiatrists, a psychologist, and a neuroscientist prepared to present the key facts about their patient, who had tried to commit suicide after experiencing bouts of depression, hallucinations, and insomnia.

But first, the quartet raised their instruments, set bows on strings, and filled a cafeteria at McLean Hospital with music that conveyed melancholy and angst.

The “patient” was 19th-century German composer Robert Schumann, and the stormy music was an exploration of the brilliant yet sometimes troubled mind that created it.

Formed two years ago, the quartet uses music to explore mental illness from a different angle, performing for patients as well as fellow medical professionals looking to learn more about the mysteries of the human mind.

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“For us, as musicians and people interested in mental health, I think exploring this and then playing the music is really powerful,” said Justin Chen, a violinist in the quartet and psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

They’ve played for psychiatrists and neurologists. They were invited to play in the Mass. General chapel after the Boston Marathon bombing. They opened at the World Congress on Heart Disease. They play for nursing homes as well as perform in more usual venues, such as Shakespeare in the Park. And on a recent Wednesday evening at McLean Hospital, they played for the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, a nonprofit organization of patients and supporters.

The quartet started with a more modest goal. Four musicians and mental health professionals thought it would be fun to bring music to the Ether Dome at Mass. General. The steep amphitheater is a legendary space in medicine, the spot where the first public surgery with ether as an anesthetic was performed in 1846.

As musicians, they wanted to fill that space with sound. As people interested in the ways the

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Robert Schumann was the group’s case presentation.
Robert Schumann was the group’s case presentation.Culver Pictures

human brain can go awry, they thought the storied spot would make a good setting to present the plight of a composer who struggled with some of the toughest diseases to treat, then or now: mental illness.

“We thought — literally, the person is alive in the room with you. His music is there,” Chen said.

So the four got to work learning the third movement of Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3 in A Major. They also began assembling a medical case presentation that would allow them to try to understand what afflicted the brilliant man who, after a suicide attempt, admitted himself to an asylum in 1854 where he died in 1856. They scoured diaries, biographies, and even listened closely to the composer’s music to patch together his medical history.

From that first performance — a presentation of the “patient” and his music to the psychiatry department at Mass. General — the quartet began to get more gigs. Although diagnosing a historical figure with a disease is speculative, they have tried to focus on composers who might have struggled with mental illness — Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert, for example.

The quartet’s membership has shifted slightly since its inception; a psychiatrist who initially played second violin dropped out and a neuroscientist took the spot. Today, three of the musicians see patients and say that playing the music with like-minded colleagues has given them a new way to think and feel about the music — and made them think harder about the intersections and rifts between creativity and mental illness.

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Psyche Loui, a violinist and assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and behavior at Wesleyan University, has found herself directly studying questions that emerge from a musical life. Her current question revolves around chills — the ineffable, spine-tingling feeling of connection that can happen when a person feels moved by music. (The piece that gives her the sensation most consistently, she said, is the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.)

After the performance at McLean, Loui presented some ideas from modern neuroscience that could help understand the connectivity patterns in Schumann’s brain. Chen and Andrea Spencer, the violist and a child psychiatrist, detailed Schumann’s symptoms and raised questions about how he would have been diagnosed today. Although such posthumous examinations could never draw definitive conclusions, the audience members were riveted and offered their own insights and questions about the connections between creativity and mental illness.

Loui said that unlike the last quartet she was in, where the group would focus on sections, asking how each “envelope” of the music should sound, Folie à Quatre members will often share how the music makes them feel.

“We talk about feeling scared, about feeling out of place,” said Tai Katzenstein, the cellist and a psychologist at Mass. General. That provides a different way of connecting to the music and to the minds that created it.

It isn’t easy to find the time to play between having personal lives, seeing patients, conducting research, and teaching.

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But they can’t imagine it any differently. And as an introspective, analytical bunch, they have engaged in a little self-diagnosis.

Some quartets, research has found, follow one person in order to stay together. Others are constantly making small changes to keep in time with each other, feeding off everyone.

“It was this magical mesh, musical and personality-wise,” Chen said. “We adjust.”


Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.