According to researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Washington, Ludwig von Beethoven’s musical compositions might have been affected by both his deafness and an irregular heartbeat caused by cardiac arrhythmia. The researchers postulate that, due to his deafness, Beethoven was highly attuned to the rhythm of his own heartbeat. What’s more, they suspect he may have suffered from cardiac arrhythmia, a condition that caused his heartbeat to be irregular. According to an article published in the Spring 2014 edition of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, the researchers analyzed the rhythms of Beethoven’s compositions to find clues that might confirm he suffered from a heart condition.

“His music may have been both figuratively and physically heartfelt,” said co-author Joel Howell, MD, PhD, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School. “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 research team reportedly studied the rhythmic patterns of several of Beethoven’s compositions that may reflect his experience of an arrhythmia. Sudden, unexpected changes in pace and keys in Beethoven’s music appear to match such asymmetrical patterns.

As examples, the researchers point to the final movement “Cavatina” in Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 130. 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.” According to the study authors, the “arrhythmic quality” of this section is unquestionable. They identified arrhythmic patterns in other pieces as well, including the opening of the “Les Adieux” Sonata (sonata opus 81a, in E-flat major).

Historians have long suspected that Beethoven suffered from more than one health problem, possibly including inflammatory bowel disease, Paget’s disease (abnormal bone destruction), liver disease, alcohol abuse, and kidney disease. As is widely known, Beethoven’s most often described ailment was deafness.

“We can’t prove or disprove that Beethoven had many of the diseases he [was] 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,” said Zachary D. Goldberger, MD, MS, lead author of the article, an assistant professor of medicine, and a cardiologist at Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington School of Medicine.

“However, 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,” said Goldberg. “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.”

Steven Whiting, PhD, a musicologist and Beethoven expert from the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, is the other author of the Perspectives in Biology and Medicine article.

Source: University of Washington, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine

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