Beethoven's Masterpieces Reveal He May Have Suffered From An Arrhythmia - Did An Irregular Heartbeat Influence His Work As A Composer?

Beethoven's masterpieces may have been influenced by an arrhythmia, according to a team of specialists that include a medical historian, a cardiologist, and a musicologist.

The cooperative effort between the University of Michigan and the University of Washington school of Medicine, which examined the possibility Beethoven may have had an arrhythmia that influenced his musical compositions, has been published in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. A University of Michigan press release asked an intriguing question.

"Could it be that when Ludwig van Beethoven composed some of the greatest masterpieces of all time that he was quite literally following his heart?"

The authors of the paper suggested that, because the composer was deaf, if he had an arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat, he would have been more astutely aware of it. Medical News Today explained that this awareness of an arrhythmia may have caused the "great man to make music by literally following his heart." Of course, Beethoven lived two centuries ago, so there are no medical records that would have recorded an arrhythmia, but the researchers say that there are clues within his masterpieces that point to the possibility of an arrhythmia within Beethoven's heart.

"We can't prove or disprove that Beethoven had many of the diseases he's been supposedly afflicted with because almost all of today's diagnostic medical tests didn't exist in the 18th century, and we are interpreting centuries-old medical descriptions into the context of what we know now," Zachary D. Goldberger, assistant professor of cardiology at the University of Washington and first author on the paper, said.

Beethoven suffered from many other problems, according to historical theories. It has been suggested that Beethoven may have had liver disease, perhaps from alcohol abuse, kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and Paget's disease, Medical News Today reported. The team is now suggesting that Beethoven may have had arrhythmia as well, after examining the rhythm of several pieces that Beethoven composed. The team claims that the unexpected and asymmetrical patterns in his musical masterpieces mirror the irregularity of a heartbeat with an arrhythmia.

"His music may have been both figuratively and physically heartfelt," suggested Dr. Joel Howell, a professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, according to the press release about Beethoven's possible arrhythmia. "When your heart beats irregularly from heart disease, it does so in some predictable patterns. We think we hear some of those same patterns in his music."

The press release from the University of Michigan explained the research team's hypothesis.

"Take for example the final movement 'Cavatina' in Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 130, an emotionally-charged piece that Beethoven said always made him weep. In the middle of the quartet, the key suddenly changes to C-flat major, involving an unbalanced rhythm that evokes dark emotion, disorientation and what has even been described as a 'shortness of breath.'

In the composer's directions to musicians playing the piece, the section is marked beklemmt, a German word that translates to 'heavy of heart.'

Authors note that 'heavy of heart' could mean sadness but may also describe the sensation of pressure, a feeling that is associated with cardiac disease. 'The arrhythmic quality of this section is unquestionable,' they write."

"While these musical arrhythmias may simply manifest Beethoven's genius, there is a possibility that in certain pieces his beating heart could literally be at the heart of some of the greatest masterpieces of all time," Dr. Goldberger explained.

Listen to "Cavatina," recorded by the Kodály Quartet in 1999, which was composed by Beethoven to see if you can hear signs of an arrhythmia like the researchers suggest.

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