Ludwig Van Beethoven

Doctors See Irregular Heartbeat in Beethoven’s Piano Music

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

Piano playing comes straight from the heart of both composers and listeners alike. Our hearts beat along with the bracing strains of Mendelssohn’s “Italian Symphony,” while they throb slowly and reverently during the “Lachrymosa” from Mozart’s Requiem, K.626. A combined group of researchers from the University of Washington and the University of Michigan recently studied the music of Beethoven to see if the reverse were true.

They published an article in the magazine Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, and their hypothesis was that an arrhythmia in Beethoven’s heart inspired the jagged, and sometimes jarring, rhythms in his late compositions. They point to his Opus 130 string quartet as a quintessential case in point, specifically the last movement. The piece changes key abruptly to an extremely distant C-flat major and incorporates a dark, brooding and unbalanced theme that’s even marked “beklemmt,” which, in German, means “heavy of heart.” Although this phrase can also be interpreted as “with great sadness,” the authors of both the study and the article maintain that the movement’s arrhythmic qualities are unmistakable. Further, they highlight portions of two late sonatas, Opus 81a and Opus 110, that have similar sections with angular, offbeat rhythms.

Beethoven was no paragon of health. He suffered from syphilis and had kidney disease. He also had liver disease, which was probably brought on by his penchant for strong drink. He may even have had irritable bowel syndrome or diseases of the bones. On top of all that, he was profoundly deaf from about the time he wrote the “Eroica” in 1803. The researchers believe that all the conditions he suffered would have contributed to the arrhythmia, and his deafness, which would have heightened his other four senses, would have made him acutely aware of his irregularly beating heart. The researchers point out that arrhythmias, despite their irregularities, tend to form recognizable patterns of beats, which is what led them to the supposition that Beethoven derived inspiration from his heart.

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