“When your heart beats irregularly from heart disease, it does so in some predictable patterns. We think we hear some of those same patterns in his music,”says Professor of Internal Medicine Joel Howell about Beethoven, referring to findings in an article he recently co-authored: “The Heartfelt Music of Ludwig van Beethoven” (together with cardiologist Zachary D. Goldberger and musicologist Steven Whiting.
Their article, according to the abstract, “strengthens the hypothesis that Beethoven suffered from cardiac arrhythmias by placing Beethoven’s music in its historical context, and by identifying several compositions that may reflect Beethoven’s experience of an arrhythmia.”
Of course Beethoven’s best-known physical condition was his deafness, which started setting in around the turn of the century, when he was entering his thirties. The causes, however, remain a matter of speculation. In her post on the Futurity website, Beata Mostafavi remarks that additional claims have been made over the years that the composer suffered from “a litany of mysterious health problems including inflammatory bowel disease, Paget’s disease (abnormal bone destruction), liver disease, alcohol abuse, and kidney disease.”
As for the claim of an abnormal heartbeat, the new study zeroes in on such compositions as the late string quartets: in particular, the Cavatina from Op. 130 in B-flat major. Mostafavi cites the famous score indication in the middle of the Cavatina — “beklemmt” (“anguished,” “pinched,” “oppressed”), which the authors apparently render as “heavy of heart”:
[The] authors note that “heavy of heart” could mean sadness but may also describe the sensation of pressure, a feeling that is associated with cardiac disease. “The arrhythmic quality of this section is unquestionable,” they write.
I wonder, though, whether their premise might be working the wrong way. Scientists and artists approach unpredictability and patterns in a radically different way. Musical genius deliberately expresses itself via unpredictable patterns. One of the key factors that makes mediocre music mediocre and boring is precisely because (usually unconsciously) we can tell “where it’s going” as it repeats the same formulas over and over.
(Note this is NOT to be equated with the techniques of Minimalism: predictability can also be made artfully unpredictable.)
But to the extent that this study is trying to “explain” pattern aberrations, I think it may be on the wrong track. On the other hand, there are plausible arguments for a composer like Mahler — who we know did suffer from a serious heart ailment — inscribing his bio-rhythms into something like the halting rhythmic patterns at the start of his Ninth Symphony.
I’ve also seen convincing descriptions of the finale of Beethoven’s Second Symphony — one of the great examples of humor in music — as alluding to the composer’s digestive problems to create a musical joke:
Pay attention to how that chirpy opening figure is set against the rumble lower in the strings that follows it — the leap from this “hiccup” high up to the rumbles and quivers below, like a belch with belly-growl. The Second was actually considered bizarre and even shocking music at its premiere in 1803. One contemporary review on the piece as a whole: “a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death.”