Were Beethoven's Masterpieces Influenced by a Cardiac Arrhythmia?

Ludwig Van Beethoven composing the Missa Solemnis, 1819-1820, Oil on canvas by Joseph Karl Stieler (1781-1858) / AISA – Everett/shutterstock.com
Janet Fang 14 Jan 2015, 18:16

The rhythms found in Ludwig van Beethoven’s famous compositions may have been inspired by his own heartbeats, and they contain clues of a heart condition that he may have had. 

Cardiac arrhythmia occurs when something goes wrong with the electrical impulses that coordinate heartbeats, and as a result, the heart might beat too fast, too slow, or irregularly. Researchers have speculated that the great composer had this condition, along with a long list of ailments including: inflammatory bowel disease, abnormal bone destruction, liver disease, alcohol abuse, kidney disease, and deafness. No one knows for sure based on centuries-old medical descriptions and not modern diagnostics.

“The symptoms and common association of an abnormal heartbeat with so many diseases makes it a reasonable assumption that Beethoven experienced arrhythmia—and the works we describe may be ‘musical electrocardiograms,’ the readout of modern heart rhythm testing equipment,” says University of Washington’s Zachary Goldberger. Furthermore, being deaf could have made him even more aware of his heartbeat.

So, Goldberger and an interdisciplinary team studied the rhythmic patterns of several of Beethoven’s compositions that may have reflected his experience of an arrhythmia. “His music may have been both figuratively and physically heartfelt,” study co-author Joel Howell from the University of Michigan says in a news release. “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.” These include sudden, unexpected changes in pace and keys that seem to match those asymmetrical rhythms. 

Beethoven has said that “Cavatina,” the final movement in his String Quartet in B-flat major, Opus 130, always made him weep. In the middle of the quartet, the key suddenly changes to C-flat major, involving an unbalanced rhythm evocative of disorienting dark emotions, often described as a shortness of breath. In his directions to musicians, Beethoven marked the section with "beklemmt," or “heavy of heart” in German. While that could just mean sadness, it may also describe that feeling of pressure associated with cardiac disease. “The arrhythmic quality of this section is unquestionable," the authors write. 

“The synergy between our minds and our bodies shapes how we experience the world,” Howell says. “This is especially apparent in the world of arts and music, which reflects so much of people’s innermost experiences.”

The trio also identified arrhythmic patterns in Piano Sonata in A-flat major, Opus 110, one of his last contributions to the genre, as well as the opening of the "Les Adieux" Sonata, Opus 81a, in E-flat major, written during France’s attack on Vienna in 1809.

"While these musical arrhythmias may simply manifest Beethoven’s genius," Goldberger adds, "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.” 

Talk about music from the heart. The findings were published in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine

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