When you think ofBeethoven, what do you think of? Most people would have simple, vague answerssuch as – he was a famous classical composer. Somemay even know that he was deaf. Many people claim to know about Beethoven, butthey do not clearly know his compositions and the meaning behind them. Theyhave 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 variousdiseases that he may have possibly suffered from, as well as other problems hehad during his life. Ludwig Van Beethoven was born on or around December 16th,1770 in Bonn, Germany to Johann and Maria-Magdalena. Since Beethoven’sgrandfather and father were both trained musicians, specifically in vocaltraining, it showed that Beethoven was destined to have a career in music.1Beethoven’s father, Johann, was an excellent vocalist but not an upstanding manin character. He had an unsound disposition and his newfound alcohol addictioncontributed to this. Beethoven attended a local primary school, but his fatheronly emphasized his musical training.
Gottfried Fischer, a friend of thefamily, wrote in his description of Beethoven’s family that Beethoven as achild was a loner but he had a vivid imagination concerning music.2Beethoven’s father had a strict approach when it came to teaching Beethoven howto play the piano. He used various threats and punishments to make Beethovenprogress more quickly. In 1792, Beethoven moved from Bonn to Vienna where hebegan to study with Joseph Haydn.3As time went on, Beethoven began to establish a reputation as a performer andcomposer.
Beethoven had many serious health problems during hislife that many do not know about. Most people know about his deafness, but manydo not know about the various bodily diseases that occurred throughoutdifferent times of his life. Primary sources such as personal letters writtenby him, letters that were written byothers, conversation books that he used, physician reports, the autopsy reportdone after Beethoven’s death, and a modern-day analysis of his hair, give us aninsight to these various diseases. Beethoven wrote letters consistently. Fromthis time in history, there are currently 1,570 letters that have beenuncovered.4In his letters, he noted various symptoms and what he was feeling at that particularmoment 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 thespecific diseases, but the effect it had on Beethoven.
Beethoven usedconversation books as writing pads to communicate with his friends and family.5The conversation books give us an insight on the help that Beethoven tried toget from various people for his deafness. The physicians’ reports shed a light on the treatment that Beethovenwas seeking for his various symptoms but specifically his deafness.
The autopsyreport given immediately after Beethoven’s death gives us a description of eachpart of his body which draws us to certain diseases. The hair analysis that wasdone in 1996 on a lock of Beethoven’s hair indicates certain levels ofchemicals that were found in Beethoven’sbody.6Each of these primary sources, either modern or in that time period, gives usan indicator of what was going on in Beethoven’s life and gives us insight onhow it impacted him. In François Martin Mai’s book Diagnosing Genius: The Life and Death of Beethoven, many possibletheories were developed based on theseprimary sources. These arespeculations on the diseases that he had drawn off of primary sources such asthe autopsy report and the hair analysis. Mai highlights Beethoven’s terminalillness, 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 inthe abdomen which was his “terminal illness.” There were abnormalities found in the liver, spleen, kidneys, andpancreas and also fluid found in the peritoneal cavity.7With this, bleeding can occur, which explains the bleeding he experiencedtowards the end of his life.8The most common speculation of the cause of his terminal illness is alcohol. Beethovenlived with his terminal illness for four months until his death on March 28th,1827.9Manypeople who have studied Beethoven and many physicians, including the ones thattreated him, have come to the conclusion that Beethoven most likely overusedalcohol. In one of Beethoven’s conversation books, there is an entry whereAnton Schindler, one of Beethoven’s associates wrote:”You should not drink today.
“10This suggests that he was most likely concerned about Beethoven’s alcoholintake. Beethoven most likely overindulged on alcohol not only because heenjoyed it, but because he used it as a coping strategy to deal with variousissues going on in his life. In my personal opinion, I think Beethoven’salcohol consumption habits are to be expected. Both his father and grandmotherdied of alcohol-related problems and I can see where it can be an effectivecoping strategy.
He had to come to terms with losing his hearing and stilltrying to be a leading composer in his day and age. Anotherproblem that Beethoven faced that might have been a result of chronicalcoholism was kidney disease. Calcareous concretions were found in each of thecalices in Beethoven’s kidneys and thisis typically found in people who have abused alcohol or have diabetes.
11 Beethovenexperienced gastrointestinal symptoms early in his life that continued untilhis death. Medical physicians and researchers have proposed four possiblefactors/diseases that might have led to him experiencing gastrointestinalproblems. These four possibilities are irritable bowel syndrome, lead toxicity,inflammatory bowel disease, and parasitic infestation.12Many physicians believe that IBS had the most effect on Beethoven’sgastrointestinal problems. A person with IBS experiences severe abdominal painand episodes of diarrhea and constipation.13It is caused by an autonomic nervous system imbalance that is influenced bypsychological factors.
Beethoven experienced these various symptoms and hislife experiences may have contributed to it. Themost well-known and most discussed problem that Beethoven had was hisdeveloping deafness. Beethoven did not lose his hearing completely but as his lifewent on, the sounds he could hear kept diminishing. He was sensitive tovibration and could hear some sounds and pitches with the help of his eartrumpets. There are many possibilities on what caused or led to Beethoven’sdeafness such as his own rage, otosclerosis, and IBS. It is most likely that itwas a mixture of various problems. Otosclerosis may have been the underlyingcause in the development of his deafness, however, IBS and his own rage(psychological factors) made it more severe. Beethovenexperienced 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 himbeing paranoid towards certain groups of individuals.14A paranoid attitude is not unheard of from someone who abuses alcohol and hisdeafness most likely furthered his paranoia. He mentioned thoughts of suicide afew times in his letters, but his love of music was strong enough to preventhim from doing it.15 Therehave been many rumors started since thetime of Beethoven’s death that he had syphilis.
The symptoms that Beethovenhad, 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 forsyphilis, was found in the hair analysis that was performed. Thequestion that has plagued people for decades is “How was it possible forBeethoven to compose a vast volume of awe-inspiring music while suffering fromso many serious, complicated, and chronic illnesses?”16It is obvious to anyone who listens to Beethoven’s work to see that he strovefor perfection. This is one concept of creativity. Eminent creativity has beenlinked to the concept of genius.17Some key requirements for creativity are dedication, independence, originality,and flexibility. These are all key characteristics that Beethovenexhibited. Unusual childhood experiencesalso impact creativity.
These struggles that children experience from early onin their life can inspire a good work ethic and a sense of accomplishment. Notonly do childhood experiences impact creativity, psychopathology, substanceabuse, and medical health problems also play a part. Even from early on inhistory, there has been a belief that genius and “madness” (psychopathology)are linked together. Many other composers and artists, in general, haveexperienced ups and downs with musical productivity during times of depressionand elevated moods and also during specific seasons.
There is a strongconnection between highly creative and psychotic-like thinking individuals.18Astonishing insights and higher level thinking breakthroughs are a few traitsthat are shared among both. Both of these groups exhibit a strong personalitytrait which is an “exaggerated tendency to verbally express a variety ofinterconnected ideas.”19Beethoven did not let his mental health issues, specifically depression, keephim from composing. He used composing music as a treatment for his variouspsychological issues. He used uplifting music to give a false impression of his depression and various melancholy musicduring certain periods of life to express his sadness. Substance abuse also has a profound impact onvarious creative processes. Beethoven used not only alcohol in an abundantamount to cope with the horrific events in his life but to cope with theanxiety produced by the creative development in his mind.
Medical illness alsohad a strong impact on Beethoven’s creativity. His various medical problems mayhave affected his bodily processes, but they did not affect his mind. He didnot let his chronic health problems interfere with his composing. Instead, heembraced them.
He specifically embraced his deafness. Since he could not hearthe music but had a strong understanding of musical concepts, he couldmanipulate the music into what he wanted it to be. By making his music soundhowever he wanted, he achieved perfection in his own sense. He also needed toexpress the deep anger inside him and the only way he knew how was to composebecause it had been ingrained in him from his childhood. Beethoven especiallyused his approaching death as a motivating factor to compose more to leave alasting legacy for himself.
His various issues made him search deep down intohis soul and made him tap into those deep, dark feelings and compose the heart-wrenching music that had not yet beencomposed.20 Beethoven’sdevotion is clearly shone through his music. He strove for perfection anddedicated his whole life to achieve musical greatness, which arecharacteristics of great creativity and genius. By experiencing the countless,horrendous events that Beethoven went through, he continued to persevere andwrite, in my opinion, the most legendary music known to man. By looking atdifferent reports of his illnesses and childhood experiences, we can see howthey 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 hashad a profound impact on the people of today.