Hearing the Heart

What happens when doctors and musicologists join forces and embark on a research project? Some interesting, albeit speculative, theories are born. A couple of weeks ago, a article on the Internet grabbed my attention and, for a brief moment, set my heart aflutter <– I’m cute and clever for choosing that phrase as you will soon see. A medical journal published the article in which is it theorized that the distinctly dramatic, sometimes volatile and erratic tempos found in Beethoven’s music were caused by the composer having had a cardiac arrhythmia. My own damaged aortic valve and I became excited at the thought that the great Beethoven was a fellow member of the heart abnormalities club. It’s all I’d ever have in common with my musical hero that’s for sure. I’ll never compose brilliant music and I’ll never be German 😛

But alas, none of it amounted to some newly discovered provable truth about Beethoven. As the cardiologist involved with the paper said himself, “This is entirely speculative”. Well, phooey then.

Anatomical drawing of the heart by Leonardo da Vinci:

DaVinciHeart

Putting aside my childish desire to have heart issues in common with the greatest composer who ever lived (yes I’m weird), the study raises some compelling questions about the intersection of creativity and science, or artistic abilities and human biology if you will. I have nothing against scientific research and new ideas, conjectural though they often are. Much of it is quite fascinating. On the other hand, the tendency to pathologize the reasons behind artistic expression is as disillusioning as it is intriguing. It falls into the category of things that are over-analyzed to death, investigated and studied and pulled apart to no real illuminating end or purpose. And that indescribable realm in which artistic gifts take flight is a realm that science can never explain or elucidate no matter how hard it may try.

We know that Beethoven was deaf, and hardly the only deaf person who ever lived. We also know he suffered from lead poising, which was not uncommon in Beethoven’s era. And yet Beethoven was the only lead-poisoned deaf person to compose the 5th Symphony. Physical ailments, of which Beethoven had many, don’t define us exclusively. Isn’t it just possible that Beethoven’s soaring melodies, fierce tempo shifts, and complex harmonies were the result of him being, well, a musical genius? Isn’t it possible his music is “heartfelt” not due to “atrial tachycardia” but to the man’s profoundly intimate understanding of the human soul? To attribute the emotional weightiness of Beethoven’s String Quartets to a bout of “angina” strikes me as a bit unseemly.

I will, however, point out what I think is the most convincing postulation of the study. The researchers claim that because Beethoven was deaf he would have been more aware of his heartbeat. That is genuinely interesting and makes you think. Unlike the 188 years-late diagnosis of an irregular heartbeat, Beethoven’s deafness was real and without question impacted the nature of his composing as it progressed throughout his life; middle register and lower frequency notes are more perceivable in the inner ear before complete deafness sets in. High notes go first, and Beethoven began to complain about that as early as age 30.

Beethoven’s hearing aids, known as “ear trumpets”:

beethovenhearingaids

Oddities, illnesses, and abnormalities may or may not affect creativity. I posted previously about the alleged shrapnel lodged in the brain of Shostakovich. But the art and music survive, and how lucky we are for that. Let’s conclude this Music Monday with a video of Beethoven’s hand-written music manuscripts. They’re incredible to see, smudges, smears, erasures and all. His heart is clearly beating throughout:

8 thoughts on “Hearing the Heart

  1. Peta says:

    I read in one of your posts about your heart problems how are you doing these days and do you take any heart medication to keep your heart healthy/ The reason I asked is that I can relate to the situation because of my dad”s own battle with cancer which he bravely battled it for the past three years and it has not been an easy struggle but he is a fighter and sometimes I worry about him and he just turned 66 this past January. I am familiar with da Vinci’s work on the anatomical heart he was bloody brilliant artist and inventor and ahead of his time.

    My dad listens to Beethoven and I heard he had a hearing disability and he composed music with his own hearing issues. A Brilliant composer we listened to his music. What a torture genius.

    Cheers
    Peta Kylie Tewey

    • artmodel says:

      Peta,

      “Tortured genius” is definitely an apt phrase for Beethoven. I cannot imagine what it’s like to gradually go deaf. I bet Beethoven would have been first in line for a cochlear implant if he were alive today.

      I don’t take medication for my heart. I was born with condition, but will likely need a valve replacement someday. And I agree that Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings are bloody brilliant! You can see many of them online.
      http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/exhibitions/leonardo-da-vinci-anatomist

      Your father has been through so much in health battles. But he’s a fighter, like you said, and his persistent joy in art and beauty is inspiring.

      So wonderful to hear from you! Thanks for your comments 🙂

      Claudia

  2. Bill says:

    It’s a fascinating question. The truly great artist expresses the full range of what makes him/her human — and that implies a certain integration of the physical, emotional and spiritual. It’s an extremely potent cocktail — reminding us that, no matter what fragmentation we experience in our own lives, the fragmentation is both artificial and illusory,

    .

    • artmodel says:

      Bill,

      That is so well said. We act, behave, create always in the “full range” of what we are. Sometimes it’s difficult to know if something is incidental or integral to who we are.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  3. Lynn Kauppi says:

    Hi Claudia

    Fortunately many, but certainly not all scientists, are moved beyond the ridiculous reductionism that you mention. I think you’ll enjoy this book:

    Sacks, Oliver W. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

    Sacks is the inspiration for the Robin Williams’ movie Awakenings, a neurologist, and an amateur musician. His book is a non-reductive neurological insight into music and brain. Absolutely fascinating and easy read.

    My thoughts and prayers for your cardiac dysfunction.
    I’ll be emailing you soon. My big editing project is almost done.

    Lynn

    • artmodel says:

      Lynn,

      Thanks for the book recommendation! Oliver Sacks has done fascinating work. And by the way, “Awakenings” was one of my favorite performances by Robin Williams. His was more touching and affecting than Robert De Niro’s in my opinion.

      Appreciate your concern/prayers for my heart condition. I’m doing, and have been doing, pretty fine for the past 40 years. I’m lucky. But I never forget that it exists.

      Thanks again for your comments! Look forward to your email.

      Claudia

  4. Jim O'Neil says:

    I remember reading, back in the late fifties (You might remember reading too, Claudia, -but not in the 50s -grin-), that El Greco’s rather elongated people were due to his astigmatic condition. Back then I rather accepted that postulation as fact (I was, of course young and callow in those days as opposed to being, shall we say, on the far side of mature and rather excessively opinionated now .), but today I find such to be interesting parenthetical asides; Did Doménikos Theotokópoulos have? Was Beethoven’s because of? DamnedifIknow. It is interesting to think about.

    Hence I quite enjoy such suppositions and insights, Thanks for sharing.

    Excellent posting, Claudia, as usual.

    • artmodel says:

      Jim,

      You’ve reminded me of the El Greco astigmatism theory. I forgot about that. Abnormal vision or not, I love El Greco.
      I can’t imagine the “callow” Jim, but then again we all were in our youth. Ah, those were the days!

      Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for your comments! 🙂

      Claudia

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