"Yet it was impossible for me to say to people, 'Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.' Oh, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed. "
- Ludwig van Beethoven, Heiligenstadt Testament
When we first encounter the classical masters, we are usually impressed by their idealized images, which have been handed down to us in engravings, paintings, and sculptures. What could be more appealing to a budding classical music fan than a portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a healthy and handsome virtuoso, or Ludwig van Beethoven as a powerful titan with fire in his eyes? Yet the more we read of how they really lived, the flattering portraits our favorite musicians fade as we learn about their setbacks, their personal flaws, and perhaps most poignantly, their ailments. Considering how unhealthy many of the great composers actually were, it's remarkable that they were able to produce much music at all. However, while some of their afflictions and illnesses were indeed debilitating, not all of them prevented the creation of enduring compositions. Indeed, some infirmities came near the end of life, after most of the composers had already completed their best works. Even so, anyone who investigates a list of their diseases and serious conditions, both physical and mental, will better appreciate that their masterpieces were often triumphs over adversity.
Many composers were fond of drinking, often to excess, but the Russian composer and civil servant Modest Mussorgsky was perhaps the most notorious of all for his rampant alcoholism. Even though he probably was predisposed to heavy drinking by his family history, cultural acceptance of the habit, and peer pressure during his years in the military, Mussorgsky belonged to a rebellious generation that thought of drunkenness as a form of protest against bourgeois society. Following his dismissal from government service in 1880, Mussorgsky's drinking became impossible to control, even though friends tried to help him. The effects of his dipsomania (the old-fashioned term for alcoholism) are evident in the tragic portrait (left) by Ilya Repin, painted weeks before the composer died at 42.
Felix Mendelssohn may have experienced the first signs of a cerebral aneurysm or bleeding in the brain when he almost drowned while swimming in the Rhine. His sudden unconsciousness in the water and his later headaches and irritability, as well as diminished creativity, may have been caused by small hemorrhages. In 1847, upon learning of the death of his beloved sister, Fanny Mendelssohn, he collapsed, and a final attack in November that year caused his death at age 36.
The Swedish symphonist Allan Pettersson was diagnosed in the early 1950s with rheumatoid arthritis, which kept him house-bound from 1968 until his death in 1980. Yet in spite of his constant pain and the frustrations due to extreme poverty and unsympathetic neighbors, he composed 15 large-scale symphonies which are among the most powerful of the 20th century, along with several imposing concertos of comparable length.
An affliction closely associated with organists is blindness. Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederick Handel both lost their eyesight in their 60s. The English composer and organist John Stanley was blind from childhood, and he succeeded Handel at Covent Gardens as director of the oratorio programs. A number of French composers and organists have been blind throughout their careers, including Louis Vierne and Jean Langlais. Louis Braille (right), who was a cellist and organist, was better known to posterity as the inventor of the Braille system, which employs raised dots on stiff paper that can be used for reading music notation as well as printed texts.
Jeremy Filsell, organ - Vierne: Symphony No. 6 in B minor - I. Introduction and Allegro
Maurice Ravel may have suffered from a degenerative disease of the brain called Pick's Disease, which possibly showed some symptoms in 1927 when the composer began having difficulty playing the piano and speaking. But a taxi accident in 1932, which seriously injured his head, curtailed his musical activities and made his brain problems worse. Loss of memory, distraction, insomnia, and inability to walk and write were first thought by Ravel's doctor to be signs of hydrocephalus or water on the brain. This led to exploratory surgery, which revealed some shrinkage of his brain, but no other clear evidence of damage or disease.
While George Gershwin was healthy for most of his youth, he started to experience olfactory hallucinations or imagined smells in his 30s, notably reporting the odor of burning rubber early in 1937, along with headaches, dizziness, and fainting. Two seizures and a loss of consciousness necessitated an operation on his brain, which he did not survive. Gershwin died at age 38 of a glioblastoma multiforme.
The total deafness that tormented Beethoven (left) is the most famous disability in music history, and the difficulties he faced as a composer were monumental. While the exact cause of his loss of hearing has never been determined, his autopsy indicated that his inner ears had been malformed and had developed lesions over time. Beethoven's hearing loss began in 1796, and as it progressed, he resorted to a number of aids, including a collection of ear trumpets and conversation books. Even though he could still compose, Beethoven gave up concertizing as a pianist in 1811, and by 1824 his deafness was so profound, he could not hear the applause at the triumphant premiere of his Ninth Symphony. He had to be turned around to see the cheering audience.
Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky, and Sergei Rachmaninov are perhaps the most famous composers who suffered severe bouts of depression, but also included in that gloomy company were Orlande de Lassus, Carlo Gesualdo, John Dowland, Hector Berlioz, Mikhail Glinka, Anton Bruckner, Anton Arensky, Hugo Wolf, and Charles Ives. Berlioz, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Wolf tried to kill themselves and failed, but depressives Jeremiah Clarke and Peter Warlock committed suicide, the former by gunshot, the latter by gas asphyxiation.
Fearful of death, neurotic, and profoundly superstitious, Gustav Mahler (right) was nonetheless an energetic figure who enjoyed vigorous walking and hiking, in addition to his strenuous activities as a conductor and as the composer of symphonies and song cycles. Yet a diagnosis of coronary arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat in 1907 curtailed some of this frenzy, and the stress of being dismissed from the Vienna Opera and the death of his daughter that same year worsened his outlook and his health. Mahler tried to regroup and improve his fortunes by taking on responsibilities conducting the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, but his morbid fears remained with him. Mahler had dreaded composing a ninth symphony because that seemed to be as far as Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner were allowed to go before their deaths. To cheat the grim reaper, Mahler followed his Eighth Symphony with the unnumbered vocal symphony, Das Lied von der Erde, and felt free then to compose the Ninth and the unfinished Tenth, secretly counting them as the Tenth and the Eleventh, respectively. A case of bacterial endocarditis or inflammation of the heart lining abruptly ended Mahler's career in America, and he sailed back to Europe. He died in 1911 at age 50.
Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond. - Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D major - I. Andante comodo
The medieval abbess, philosopher, herbalist, and composer Hildegard von Bingen was a mystic who wrote down her miraculous visions. While she is honored as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, modern doctors think her visions may have been migraine auras, specifically hemicrania sine dolore or a form of migraine that produces startling visual images without pain.
Bruckner (left) could lay claim to a number of difficulties in his life, stemming from his lack of sophistication and his obsequious manner. But he definitely suffered from several neuroses which practically made him a case study. Bruckner is now thought to have endured several symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. Among them was his numeromania or compulsion to count things continually, which could involve anything from windows or bricks in a wall to rhythmic figures and repeated measures in his music. He also suffered from debilitating insecurity and doubts about his worth as a composer, which led to many revisions of his symphonies. But the most bizarre of Bruckner's neuroses was his extreme interest in viewing corpses. A frequent visitor to the funerals of total strangers, he could not resist attending the exhumation of Beethoven's body in 1888. So intent was Bruckner to inspect the master's remains, he accidentally dropped a lens from his pince-nez into the coffin.
Georges Bizet was a chronic sufferer of tonsillitis and quinsy, which gave him sore throats and neck swellings due to streptoccocal infections. He didn't live long enough to see his masterpiece, the opera Carmen, become a classic, because he fell ill with a severe throat infection, which in turn triggered two heart attacks and a ruptured lesion on the side of his neck, which was briefly suspected by the police to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Mozart is known to have contracted rheumatic fever in his childhood, and a recurrence in adulthood may have been one of several factors that caused his frequent illnesses and early death. As a result of it, he most likely had high blood pressure exacerbated by stress, and his work habits made minor infections worse. At his death, Mozart had a high fever, immobility, swellings of his limbs, and vomiting, but his two doctors may well have finished him off with blood-letting, a common and commonly fatal 18th century practice. Whatever took his life, Mozart was not murdered by his colleague and sometime rival, Antonio Salieri.
Widespread and unchecked until the discovery of penicillin, syphilis was a scourge that accounted for many premature deaths, and several composers are known or strongly believed to have contracted it, including Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann. Other famous syphilitics were Franz Schubert, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Gaspare Spontini, Gaetano Donizetti, Mikhail Glinka, Bedrich Smetana, Hugo Wolf, Frederick Delius, Edward Macdowell, and Scott Joplin, and their symptoms ranged from lesions and fevers to blindness, deafness, dementia, and death. Yet because syphilis masquerades as other diseases, it's possible that other composers had it without knowing it. Alexander Scriabin (right) displayed symptoms of mental illness late in his life, including a messianic megalomania brought on by syphilis. However, Scriabin's delusional plan to compose a massive work entitled Mysterium, which he believed would transport the world into a new, mystical age, ended when he expired from septicemia or blood poisoning at age 43.
One might expect Arnold Schoenberg, the founder of the dodecaphonic system or twelve-tone composition, to have an aversion to the number 13, which is known as triskaidekaphobia. Not only did Schoenberg stay clear of rooms, floors, and buildings with the number, he carefully searched for anything that added up to 13 in his music. The title of his opera, Moses und Aron, contains only 12 letters because Schoenberg superstitiously dropped the second a in Aaron to avoid the dreaded number. Furthermore, he lived in fear of days numbered 13. As fate would have it, he was born on September 13, 1874 and died, expecting the worst, on July 13, 1951, at age 76 (7+6=13).
A list of composers who suffered or died from tuberculosis (once called consumption because it seemed to consume people from inside) includes names from across the centuries. Henry Purcell, Luigi Boccherini, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Carl Maria von Weber, Ferdinand Hérold, Niccolò Paganini, Frédéric Chopin, Stephen Collins Foster, Karol Szymanowski, and Igor Stravinsky contracted tuberculosis, commonly shortened to TB, at one point or another in their lives. However, this contagious bacterial infection of the lungs has become known as the Romantic disease par excellence, thanks to the successes of the play La Dame aux camélias, and the operas La Traviata and La Bohème. With tuberculosis once more on the rise, though, it may lose some of its morbid charm.
To your continued good health!