Many who listen to Beethoven’s masterpieces would describe them as deeply heartfelt — and according to new research, this description may be surprisingly apt.
The unusual rhythms found in some of Beethoven’s most iconic works may be linked to the heart condition cardiac arrhythmia, which he is suspected to have had, research from the University of Michigan and University of Washington suggests.
In a new paper published in the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, the researchers — a cardiologist, a medical historian and a musicologist — investigated the link between the German composer’s likely heart condition and his music.
“We started thinking about the ways that somebody’s physical illnesses and physical body could manifest in the music they were making,” one of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Joel Howell, a medical historian and professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan, told The Huffington Post.
The researchers examined the rhythmic patterns of a number of Beethoven’s compositions for clues of this condition, and indeed found that the rhythms of certain sections of his famous works reflect the irregular rhythms of cardiac arrhythmia.
“When your heart beats irregularly from heart disease, it does so in some predictable patterns,” Howell said in a written statement. “We think we hear some of those same patterns in his music.”
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.
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, Howell explained.
According to the paper’s authors, Beethoven’s deafness could have made him even more sensitive to the rhythm of his own heartbeat, which is perhaps why it was so influential for his music.
But Beethoven isn’t the only famous artist who may have had a medical condition that deeply affected his work. Claude Monet experienced vision problems and was diagnosed with cataracts in the later years of his life. Around the age of 65, he began experiencing changes in his perception of color — and at this time, his paintings shifted towards muddier colors. After he was diagnosed with cataracts at age 72, Monet’s work became noticeably more abstract.
“The synergy between our minds and our bodies shapes how we experience the world,” Howell said in the statement. “This is especially apparent in the world of arts and music, which reflects so much of people’s innermost experiences.”