When you think of
Beethoven, what do you think of? Most people would have simple, vague answers
such as – he was a famous classical composer. Some
may even know that he was deaf. Many people claim to know about Beethoven, but
they do not clearly know his compositions and the meaning behind them. They
have no idea about what he endured during his life and what inspired his pieces.
Beethoven’s creativity and success in the music realm were characterized by his childhood experiences and various
diseases that he may have possibly suffered from, as well as other problems he
had during his life.

            Ludwig Van Beethoven was born on or around December 16th,
1770 in Bonn, Germany to Johann and Maria-Magdalena. Since Beethoven’s
grandfather and father were both trained musicians, specifically in vocal
training, it showed that Beethoven was destined to have a career in music.1
Beethoven’s father, Johann, was an excellent vocalist but not an upstanding man
in character. He had an unsound disposition and his newfound alcohol addiction
contributed to this. Beethoven attended a local primary school, but his father
only emphasized his musical training. Gottfried Fischer, a friend of the
family, wrote in his description of Beethoven’s family that Beethoven as a
child was a loner but he had a vivid imagination concerning music.2
Beethoven’s father had a strict approach when it came to teaching Beethoven how
to play the piano. He used various threats and punishments to make Beethoven
progress more quickly. In 1792, Beethoven moved from Bonn to Vienna where he
began to study with Joseph Haydn.3
As time went on, Beethoven began to establish a reputation as a performer and

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            Beethoven had many serious health problems during his
life that many do not know about. Most people know about his deafness, but many
do not know about the various bodily diseases that occurred throughout
different times of his life. Primary sources such as personal letters written
by him, letters that were written by
others, conversation books that he used, physician reports, the autopsy report
done after Beethoven’s death, and a modern-day analysis of his hair, give us an
insight to these various diseases. Beethoven wrote letters consistently. From
this time in history, there are currently 1,570 letters that have been
In his letters, he noted various symptoms and what he was feeling at that particular
moment in time. There are not many letters written by others about Beethoven,
but the ones that were written give us an insight, not necessarily into the
specific diseases, but the effect it had on Beethoven. Beethoven used
conversation books as writing pads to communicate with his friends and family.5
The conversation books give us an insight on the help that Beethoven tried to
get from various people for his deafness. The physicians’ reports shed a light on the treatment that Beethoven
was seeking for his various symptoms but specifically his deafness. The autopsy
report given immediately after Beethoven’s death gives us a description of each
part of his body which draws us to certain diseases. The hair analysis that was
done in 1996 on a lock of Beethoven’s hair indicates certain levels of
chemicals that were found in Beethoven’s
Each of these primary sources, either modern or in that time period, gives us
an indicator of what was going on in Beethoven’s life and gives us insight on
how it impacted him.

            In François Martin Mai’s book Diagnosing Genius: The Life and Death of Beethoven, many possible
theories were developed based on these
primary sources. These are
speculations on the diseases that he had drawn off of primary sources such as
the autopsy report and the hair analysis. Mai highlights Beethoven’s terminal
illness, his drinking habits, kidney disease, gastrointestinal problems,
deafness, psychiatric and psychosomatic symptoms, and the syphilis myth.

            In the autopsy, the most prominent changes were found in
the abdomen which was his “terminal illness.” There were abnormalities found in the liver, spleen, kidneys, and
pancreas and also fluid found in the peritoneal cavity.7
With this, bleeding can occur, which explains the bleeding he experienced
towards the end of his life.8
The most common speculation of the cause of his terminal illness is alcohol. Beethoven
lived with his terminal illness for four months until his death on March 28th,

people who have studied Beethoven and many physicians, including the ones that
treated him, have come to the conclusion that Beethoven most likely overused
alcohol. In one of Beethoven’s conversation books, there is an entry where
Anton Schindler, one of Beethoven’s associates wrote:
“You should not drink today.”10
This suggests that he was most likely concerned about Beethoven’s alcohol
intake. Beethoven most likely overindulged on alcohol not only because he
enjoyed it, but because he used it as a coping strategy to deal with various
issues going on in his life. In my personal opinion, I think Beethoven’s
alcohol consumption habits are to be expected. Both his father and grandmother
died of alcohol-related problems and I can see where it can be an effective
coping strategy. He had to come to terms with losing his hearing and still
trying to be a leading composer in his day and age.

problem that Beethoven faced that might have been a result of chronic
alcoholism was kidney disease. Calcareous concretions were found in each of the
calices in Beethoven’s kidneys and this
is typically found in people who have abused alcohol or have diabetes.11

experienced gastrointestinal symptoms early in his life that continued until
his death. Medical physicians and researchers have proposed four possible
factors/diseases that might have led to him experiencing gastrointestinal
problems. These four possibilities are irritable bowel syndrome, lead toxicity,
inflammatory bowel disease, and parasitic infestation.12
Many physicians believe that IBS had the most effect on Beethoven’s
gastrointestinal problems. A person with IBS experiences severe abdominal pain
and episodes of diarrhea and constipation.13
It is caused by an autonomic nervous system imbalance that is influenced by
psychological factors. Beethoven experienced these various symptoms and his
life experiences may have contributed to it.  

most well-known and most discussed problem that Beethoven had was his
developing deafness. Beethoven did not lose his hearing completely but as his life
went on, the sounds he could hear kept diminishing. He was sensitive to
vibration and could hear some sounds and pitches with the help of his ear
trumpets. There are many possibilities on what caused or led to Beethoven’s
deafness such as his own rage, otosclerosis, and IBS. It is most likely that it
was a mixture of various problems. Otosclerosis may have been the underlying
cause in the development of his deafness, however, IBS and his own rage
(psychological factors) made it more severe.

experienced many psychiatric and psychosomatic symptoms throughout his life.
Beethoven in the rough times of his life mostly complained about symptoms of depression but on some occasions, he describes symptoms of anxiety,
insomnia, and anger. Beethoven was sensitive to insult which resulted in him
being paranoid towards certain groups of individuals.14
A paranoid attitude is not unheard of from someone who abuses alcohol and his
deafness most likely furthered his paranoia. He mentioned thoughts of suicide a
few times in his letters, but his love of music was strong enough to prevent
him from doing it.15

have been many rumors started since the
time of Beethoven’s death that he had syphilis. The symptoms that Beethoven
had, such as diarrhea and cirrhosis of the liver, are not symptoms of syphilis,
therefore the myth has been disproven.  Also, no trace of mercury, the treatment for
syphilis, was found in the hair analysis that was performed.

question that has plagued people for decades is “How was it possible for
Beethoven to compose a vast volume of awe-inspiring music while suffering from
so many serious, complicated, and chronic illnesses?”16
It is obvious to anyone who listens to Beethoven’s work to see that he strove
for perfection. This is one concept of creativity. Eminent creativity has been
linked to the concept of genius.17
Some key requirements for creativity are dedication, independence, originality,
and flexibility. These are all key characteristics that Beethoven
exhibited.  Unusual childhood experiences
also impact creativity. These struggles that children experience from early on
in their life can inspire a good work ethic and a sense of accomplishment.

only do childhood experiences impact creativity, psychopathology, substance
abuse, and medical health problems also play a part. Even from early on in
history, there has been a belief that genius and “madness” (psychopathology)
are linked together. Many other composers and artists, in general, have
experienced ups and downs with musical productivity during times of depression
and elevated moods and also during specific seasons. There is a strong
connection between highly creative and psychotic-like thinking individuals.18
Astonishing insights and higher level thinking breakthroughs are a few traits
that are shared among both. Both of these groups exhibit a strong personality
trait which is an “exaggerated tendency to verbally express a variety of
interconnected ideas.”19
Beethoven did not let his mental health issues, specifically depression, keep
him from composing. He used composing music as a treatment for his various
psychological issues. He used uplifting music to give a false impression of his depression and various melancholy music
during certain periods of life to express his sadness.  Substance abuse also has a profound impact on
various creative processes. Beethoven used not only alcohol in an abundant
amount to cope with the horrific events in his life but to cope with the
anxiety produced by the creative development in his mind. Medical illness also
had a strong impact on Beethoven’s creativity. His various medical problems may
have affected his bodily processes, but they did not affect his mind. He did
not let his chronic health problems interfere with his composing. Instead, he
embraced them. He specifically embraced his deafness. Since he could not hear
the music but had a strong understanding of musical concepts, he could
manipulate the music into what he wanted it to be. By making his music sound
however he wanted, he achieved perfection in his own sense. He also needed to
express the deep anger inside him and the only way he knew how was to compose
because it had been ingrained in him from his childhood. Beethoven especially
used his approaching death as a motivating factor to compose more to leave a
lasting legacy for himself. His various issues made him search deep down into
his soul and made him tap into those deep, dark feelings and compose the heart-wrenching music that had not yet been

devotion is clearly shone through his music. He strove for perfection and
dedicated his whole life to achieve musical greatness, which are
characteristics of great creativity and genius. By experiencing the countless,
horrendous events that Beethoven went through, he continued to persevere and
write, in my opinion, the most legendary music known to man. By looking at
different reports of his illnesses and childhood experiences, we can see how
they inspired the creative process that led him to be such a marvelous composer.
Ludwig Van Beethoven was not only a wondrous composer of his time, but he has
had a profound impact on the people of today.


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