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Refer this article as: Alexandre, M., Musicians and visual impairment (second and final part), Points de Vue, International Review of Ophthalmic Optics, N67, Autumn 2012

Musicians and visual impairment (second and final part)

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The creation in Paris of the National Institute for Young Blind People (INJA) and, above all, the invention in the 19th century of an alphabet for the blind and visually impaired by Louis Braille, along with its application to reading music, were discussed in the first part of this article, published in Points de Vue n°66/Spring 2012.

The second and final part of this article will be given over to a presentation of musicians, composers or players, who have achieved wide renown, in some cases, with their public being unaware of the fact that they were visually impaired.

The 18th century provides us with two particularly well-known examples of musicians who suffered from visual impairment: Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. Both of these men suffered from cataract and called on the services of the "Knight" John Taylor, an English ophthalmologist (1703-1772).

Fig. 1: Joannes Taylor

The son of an apothecary, John Taylor studied medicine and specialised in ophthalmology. He rose through the ranks to become the personal eye doctor of King George II of Great Britain and Ireland (1683-1760).

John Taylor travelled throughout Europe and "operated" on the cataracts of the greats of this world using a rather peculiar method: after having the patient drink sufficient alcohol to anaesthetise him, the doctor struck the patient on the head once or twice: the shock wave caused luxation of the crystalline and other side effects which can be imagined and which often left the patient completely blind…

Bach (1685-1750) suffered serious eye problems for many years, possibly the result of the numerous copies and transcriptions he had made throughout his life, in poor candlelight. For this reason he called on the services of John Taylor.

Fig. 2: Bach

(left) Portrait
Jean-Sébastian Bach in 1746.
Oil painting by Elias Gottlob Haussmann.
Source : Wikipédia

(right) Facial reconstruction
(c) Caroline Wilkinson & Janice Aitken, University
Dundee, Scotland / Bachhaus Eisenach, Germany.
Private use and use through public media with
regard to our special exhibition is permitted

Johann Nikolaus Forkel's (1749-1818) biography of Bach relates the operation and the end of Bach's life as follows:

"…On the advice of some of his friends, who had a great deal of confidence in the skills of an English eye doctor who had just arrived in Leipzig, he agreed to attempt an operation, which failed twice. Not only did he lose his sight, but also his health. His health had been so strong previously, but it was thoroughly weakened by the use of medicines, which were probably harmful and which were taken prior to the operation. His health declined further for a period of six months. Ten days before his death his sight suddenly returned. But a few hours later he suffered an attack followed by acute fever, which his weak body was unable to resist, despite all his doctors' efforts …"

The Cantor put the final touches to his great Mass in B minor and on his deathbed he dictated his final work to his son in law, Altnikol, "Vor deinem Thron tret ich hiermit" (I come before Your throne). He died at the age of sixty-five on 30th July 1750.

Handel (1685-1759) had no more luck than his famous contemporary.

Fig. 3: Haendel
Portrait of Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759) ; Author: Balthasar Denner (1685–1749) 
Location: National Portrait Gallery, London 
Source: Wikipedia

In 1750, Handel's sight started to suffer increasingly seriously, just like J.-S. Bach, who had died a few months earlier. In the summer of 1758, he went to Tunbridge Wells (Kent) where he consulted John Taylor. The operation was a failure, as it had been for Bach. Handel wanted to devote himself entirely to music, but his blindness made his work very difficult. He was able, however, to play organ music and concertos from memory and improvised music scores through until his death in 1759.

Blind composers and organists in the 19th and 20th centuries


Frederick Albert Theodore Delius (1862–1934)

Portrait of Delius by Jelka Rosen (1912)

Fig. 4: Frederick Albert Theodore Delius
Portrait of Frederick Delius
Author: Jelka Rosen (1868-1935)

Born in England, Frederick Delius learned to play the violin and the piano, but his father Julius Delius, a German industrialist who ran a wool factory, did not want him to go into a career in music. He discovered Wagner's music at the age of thirteen, when he attended a concert. Later his father sent him to Florida to run an orange plantation whilst he studied composition. It was after this trip that he composed his first orchestral work, the Florida Suite.

On his return to Europe, he studied at the Leipzig conservatory with Reinecke, and it was in Leipzig that he met Edvard Grieg who was to have a profound influence on his music.

In 1888, thanks to the intervention of Grieg with his father, he went to live in Paris and lived in France until the end of his life. Unlike the other musicians mentioned here, who lost their sight at birth or at a very young age, Delius went blind at the end of his life after suffering from syphilis. No longer able to write his own music, it was his secretary who wrote down his final compositions for the last ten years of his life.

Joaquin Rodrigo (1902-1999)

Fig. 5: Joaquin Rodrigo 

Having gone blind at the age of three after a diphtheria epidemic, Joaquín Rodrigo began his music studies in Spain. He then went to Paris where he studied under Paul Dukas (composer of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice") at the Schola Cantorum, from 1927 to 1931. He was then part of the Paris music scene, met Maurice Ravel and Manuel de Falla, and composed his famous "Concierto de Aranjuez" for guitar and orchestra. This work was first performed in 1940 in Barcelona and its second movement was to enjoy worldwide success.

Now famous and the director of the music department of the Radio Nacional de España, he never ceased composing, producing a variety of work including stage music, concert music (concertos for guitar, piano, violin, cello, harp...), choir music and chamber music.


André Marchal (1894-1980) at the organ of Saint-Sébastien in Hendaye

Fig. 6: André Marchal
Source :

André Marchal was one of the greatest organists of the 20th century. He was born in Paris on 6th February 1894 and went blind at a very young age. After a good education at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris, in 1911 at the age of seventeen, André Marchal was admitted to the Paris Conservatory. He became an organ teacher at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles where the repertoire he taught was only restricted by the possibility of obtaining scores in braille. As organist in residence at Saint Eustache, he renewed the interpretation of Bach and the organs' mechanisms and introduced French music of the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly that of Couperin. A great interpreter of César Franck and a wonderful improviser, he toured the world and had many pupils, including Jean Langlais.

Jean Langlais (1907-1991)

Fig. 7: Jean Langlais
Sainte Clotilde, 1958

Jean Langlais was from a family of stone masons and went blind at the age of two. His career was very similar to that of André Marchal since he entered the INJA in 1917, where he studied the organ, and was admitted in 1927 to the Paris Conservatory. In Dukas' composition class, he was a fellow student of Olivier Messiaen. A great virtuoso, most of his career (1945- 1988) was spent on the organ of Sainte-Clotilde in Paris, built for César Franck. He taught at the Institut National Des Jeunes Aveugles (1930- 1968) and at the Schola Cantorum (1961-1976).

Helmut Walcha (1907-1991)

Fig. 8: Helmut Walcha

It would be unfair not to mention here, alongside the great blind representatives of the French organ school previously mentioned, a very great German musician, Helmut Walcha.

He lost his sight at the age of sixteen, following a defective smallpox vaccination, but went on to develop a major international music career. His name remains indissociable from the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose entire organ repertoire he recorded twice, as well as the great harpsichord music cycles.

Walcha always explained that blindness had enabled him to discover the internal world of music. His performances were limpid, with a craftsman's return to the text, slowly seeking his registers, which he always refused to publish.

The French organ school represented, amongst others, by artists such as Marchal and Langlais, demonstrates the essential role which the INJA has played and continues to play today. Children who attended this school at the beginning of the 20th century were blind from birth or had acquired a major visual impairment at an early age: congenital cataract, glaucoma, diabetes, oxygen deficiency at birth, defective vaccination, were all risk factors that progress today in both medicine and genetics have considerably reduced.

Visually impaired musicians are not, of course, found in the world of "classical" music alone. Many personalities in the world of jazz or pop have also enjoyed exceptional careers, despite their disability.

Blind Jazz and Pop musicians

Art Tatum (1909-1956) composer, musician

Fig. 9: Art Tatum
Portrait of Art Tatum, the Vogue Room in New York. Photograph taken by William P. Gottlieb between 1946 and 1948.
Source: Wikipedia

Arthur Tatum was born into a musical family on 13th October 1909 in the industrial town of Toledo (Ohio). He first studied violin and guitar and then piano. Art Tatum was almost completely blind from birth, due to a cataract on one eye and very restricted vision in the other. For this reason he went to a school for the blind where he took piano lessons. Selftaught he used braille and copied down the music he heard on records. As a teenager he was already a professional piano player in Toledo, but his professional career only began in earnest in 1926.

He is considered to be one of the greatest jazz pianists, the inventor of the “stride”, which he took to its utmost. His technique was amazing, and he inspired a great deal of respect amongst his "classical" pianist colleagues, notably Vladimir Horowitz and Serge Rachmaninov, themselves exceptional virtuosos

Ray Charles (1930-2004) composer, musician

Fig. 10: Ray Charles
Last concert of Ray Charles, in Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier at Place des Arts during the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal in 2003. Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich.
Date: 15 july 2003
Source: Wikipedia

The young Ray began to lose his sight from the age of five and went completely blind at the age of seven. His blindness was probably due to glaucoma, which went undetected and untreated, no doubt due to the poverty in which he grew up, where medical treatment was unavailable. From 1937 he went to an institution for the deaf and blind in Sainte-Augustine, Florida.

But his disability did not prevent him from learning to ride a bicycle or playing cards. Ray Charles used all his senses; he assessed distances using his hearing and learned to develop his memory. He always refused to use a guide dog or a white cane, although he did need an assistant when on tour.

Some of his fans nicknamed him "the blind architect of jazz and blues". He imposed his own style in the fifties, with songs whose lyrics combined the profane with gospel sound.

He was the equal of other great black voices – Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Bessie Smith – and music hall stars such as Sinatra or Stevie Wonder. He used to say, with his habitual humour "I'm blind, but there's always someone worse off than yourself, I could have been black!"

Jose Feliciano (1945 - ) composer, musician

Fig. 11: José Feliciano
Date: July 20, 2007
Author: DJ Buck
Source: Wikipedia

José Feliciano was born in Porto Rico, and has been blind from birth due to congenital glaucoma. He taught himself music by listening in his room, for up to 14 hours a day, to rock music albums from the fifties, as well as classical guitarists such as Andrés Segovia or jazzmen like Wes Montgomery. His first tour in Great Britain had to be cancelled because the authorities refused entry to his guide dog, fearing that it might be carrying rabies.

Feliciano later wrote a song entitled "No dogs allowed", in reference to this first visit to London.

As well as his musical talents, Feliciano is known for his great sense of humour. Like Ray Charles he has no hesitation in joking about people's reactions to his blindness.

Stevie Wonder (1950 - ), composer, musician

Fig. 12: Stevie Wonder
Salvador (BA) - Singer Stevie Wonder speaks at the opening of the 2nd Conference of Intellectuals from Africa and the Diaspora in Salvador.
Date: 12/07/2006
Author: Antonio Cruz/ABr
Source : Wikipedia

Stevie Wonder was born prematurely and an excess of oxygen in the incubator left him blind within just a few hours. Fearing for his safety his mother only very rarely let him out, so Stevie amused himself by listening to the radio. He quickly acquired some good music basics and soon began singing in the church choir. He taught himself to play the harmonica and drums at the age of five and from then on took piano lessons. He was signed by the Motown label and brought his first record out at the age of 12, a few months before a second album dedicated to his idol Ray Charles, "Tribute to Uncle Ray".

Stevie Wonder introduced the use of synthesisers in pop music and his compositions are often imprinted with great optimism. Blind, but with a great deal of humour, Stevie Wonder wrote the song "Don't Drive Drunk" for the MAAD charity (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).

Andrea Bocelli (1958 - ) singer

Fig. 13: Andrea Bocelli
Author: Dovywiarda
Source: Wikipedia

Bocelli was born with congenital glaucoma, aggravated by chronic diabetes. He suffered a great deal with his eyes. He underwent his first operation at the age of six months, and twenty-six other operations followed. But doctors were unable to give Andrea's family any hope; he would go blind.

He lost his vision completely in 1970 after an accident when he was twelve. He was studying in Reggio de Calabre at the time and was playing football. The blind children were using balls with metal pieces on their surface, to help them locate them.

A ball hit Bocelli on the head and a piece of metal went into his eyes, precipitating his blindness.

Andrea's mother says that she didn't know how to react with her son. She asked a blind boy for some advice and he recommended keeping Andrea's visual memory alive, colours, shapes etc. everything her son could no longer see.

During his teenage years he won numerous singing competitions but was careful to take a law degree at Pisa University whilst continuing to sing in the musical bars of the city, his repertoire running from Charles Aznavour to Frank Sinatra.

The real turning point in his life as a musician came when he met the legendary tenor Franco Corelli, who agreed to take him on as a pupil, nicknaming him "the blind angel". In 1994 Luciano Pavarotti personally invited Andrea Bocelli to the Pavarotti Festival in Modena, where he sang alongside the Maestro.

Since then although he has not succeeded as an opera singer he has appeared alongside international stars on the most prestigious world stages.


As we have seen, visually impaired musicians, either self-taught or through the intermediary of dedicated structures, have been able to develop their natural gifts for playing an instrument.

Although the causes of blindness at birth, or during early childhood, have been identified and although today some of these can be avoided through preventive action, there still remains a great deal of work to be done by research laboratories to ensure that, in the near future, risk factors leading to a visual disability are controlled in order to ensure that the consequences are diminished as far as possible.

This is the meaning of the programmes currently being carried out in genetics and biology. There is so much still to discover about how the eye works and particularly in terms of the retina! Life expectancy increases on average by about three months every year and since in most cases AMD does not today benefit from satisfactory treatment, it is unfortunately certain that the number of people with a visual impairment will increase in significant proportions in the next few years.

Of course, new visual aids, the implementation of multidisciplinary protocols, specific learning techniques and dedicated host structures are already facilitating the adaptation of this new disabled population, but one cannot fail to make a parallel between the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles created in the 19th century whose aim was to care for the consequences of visual impairment and the Vision Institute in Paris which, by working in particular on the causes of visual impairment, will result in a reduction of the consequences.

Director of Formoptic (Training and advice for opticians), France
About us


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Refer this article as: Alexandre, M., Musicians and visual impairment (second and final part), Points de Vue, International Review of Ophthalmic Optics, N67, Autumn 2012

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