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 :P
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:
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”:
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: