A few months ago Hearing International posted a three-part series on Beethoven and his hearing impairment (Part I, Part II, Revisited). Beethoven and his hearing loss have long fascinated audiologists, otolaryngologists, musicians and the general world pubic in that he created some of the world’s most beautiful music with a significant hearing loss. Speculation on the cause of his hearing impairment includes syphilis, otosclerosis, neural atrophy, labyrinthitis, proliferative meningitis, lead poisoning, chronic adhesive middle ear catarrh, Piaget’s disease of the bone, otitis media, neuritis acoustica, hyperthyroidism, alcohol abuse, inflammatory bowel disease, or some other malady. As indicated in our other postings on Beethoven, the autopsy was destroyed and we have only the recollection of Dr. Johann Wagoner to shed light on the issues of the deafness and the actual cause of death. Historians and physicians have substantial inferential evidence to suggest that Beethoven suffered from heart disease, in addition to a host of other maladies, including irritable bowel syndrome and syphilis. Many of the maladies Beethoven was known to suffer from have been found to contribute to an irregular heartbeat – -could this have affected his music?
In this new year, 2015, there is now speculation that he may have composed at least some of his music to his heartbeat. The striking rhythms found in some of Beethoven’s most famous works may have been inspired by his own heartbeat, says a team of researchers from the University of Michigan and University of Washington that includes a cardiologist (Dr. Zach Goldberger), medical historian (Dr. Joel Howell), and musicologist (Dr. Seven Whiting). Mostafavi (2015) states that the team studied the rhythmic patterns of several compositions that may reflect Beethoven’s experience of an arrhythmia, a condition that causes the heart to beat too fast, too slow, or with an irregular rhythm. Sudden, unexpected changes in pace and keys in Beethoven’s music appear to match such asymmetrical patterns. Dr. Howell states that “Cardiac arrhythmia can cause the heart to beat too slow, too fast or with an irregular beat. The researchers found that unexpected changes of pace and keys — such as the intense final movement “Cavatina” in Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 130 — appeared to match these patterns. Arrhythmic patterns were also detected in iconic pieces like the Piano Sonata in A-flat major, Opus 110.”
In their article, the experts indicated that Beethoven said that the final movement of “Cavatina” in Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 130, “always makes me weep”. The researchers point out that n the middle of the Cavatina, the key suddenly changes to C-flat major, involving an unbalanced rhythm that evokes dark emotion, disorientation and what could be described as a “shortness of breath.” Click on the pictures of to the right (Cavatina) and left (Piano Sonata). In the Piano Sonata I do hear some strange beats but as I listen to the Cavatina, the strange beats Drs. Goldberg, Howell and Whiting point out seems to be key changes, about 4 minutes into the piece. While I do hear some strange beats and key changes they seem rather subtle, listen for yourself. See if you can hear the key changes and irregular rhythms but keep in mind that being a student of music and/or cardiology would probably be of assistance in listening for the irregularities.
Gregoire, C. (2015). Beethoven may have composed masterpieces to his own irregular heartbeat. Huffington Post. Retrieved January 25, 2015: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/11/beethoven-heart-condition_n_6431054.html
Happy Monkey (2015). Beethoven’s string quartet op. 130 Cavatina. You Tube. Retrieved January 25, 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pewBRolWwjQ&list=RDpewBRolWwjQ
Mostafavi, B. (2015). Was Beethoven’s music literally heartfelt? University of Michigan Health Systems. Retrieved January 265, 2015: http://www.uofmhealth.org/news/archive/201501/was-beethoven%E2%80%99s-music-literally-heartfelt
AOP Radio (2015). Beethoven. Retrieved January 25, 2015: http://orquestadas.info/archives/5045
University of Michigan Health Systems. (2015). Joel Howell. Retrieved January 25, 2015: http://www.sph.umich.edu/iscr/faculty/profile.cfm?uniqname=jhowell
University of Michigan Health Systems. (2015). Steven Whiting. Retrieved January 25, 2015: http://www.music.umich.edu/faculty_staff/bio.php?u=stevenmw
University of Washington – Medicine (2015). Zachary Goldberger. Retrieved January 25, 2015: http://www.uwmedicine.org/bios/zachary-Goldberger
Yoo, A., (2015). Beethoven made his own musical notes. My Modern Met. Retrieved January 25, 2015: http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/beethoven-made-of-his-own-musical-notes
Hollembeak, C. (2011). What do Beethoven books have in common? Fundmusic. Retrieved January 25, 2015: http://fundamusic.com/?p=335