Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Ludwig van Beethoven, perhaps the most widely recognized composer of all time. He was born in 1770 in Germany and died in 1827, having moved to Vienna, Austria in his early twenties and settled there. Studying under Joseph Haydn, Beethoven quickly became a renowned piano virtuoso and composer.

Born into a line of musicians, it is popularly believed that Beethoven’s childhood was characterized by an abusive, alcoholic father who taught him how to play the piano in a less-than-kind manner. While Beethoven’s immense talent was evident early on in his life, personal circumstances, including the death of his beloved mother and the subsequent guardianship of his younger brothers, overshadowed his early career.

It was not until he moved to Vienna that he became a well-established performer and composer. Contrary to the trend of composers who came before him and worked for the church or in a noble court, Beethoven earned his living through yearly stipends, gifts from nobility, sales of his compositions, and by giving concerts and lessons.
Beethoven’s personal life continued to be fraught with difficulties which included failed romances and a complicated custody dispute over his nephew. Intermixed with these, Beethoven suffered incredibly from health issues not the least of which was asthma.

According to Voices from the Past, Beethoven was "tormented by chronic asthma and other debilitating diseases," and "composed unforgettable music while railing against ‘bumbling doctors’ – the best physicians in Vienna – who were unable to give him relief from asthma.." He also suffered from severe tinnitus, a loud ringing in the ears, and the associated loss of hearing. While it has been attributed to underlying conditions he may have had, such as lead poisoning or syphilis, it is also interesting to note that,llergies are another common cause of tinnitus.

Recent research seems to point to lead poisoning as the root of many of Beethoven’s other ailments like severe abdominal pain. Although it is impossible to pinpoint the source of his lead poisoning, lead was used indiscriminately in Beethoven’s days in cups and plates, to sweeten wine, and even as a medical treatment! Ironically, it is very likely that Beethoven’s doctors treated him with medicines stored in leaded containers that leached the metal into the medicines he consumed.

Though we can not be sure what Beethoven’s doctors prescribed to treat his asthma symptoms, we do know, up until about the mid-eighteenth century, European physicians viewed medicine from a philosophy derived from ancient Greco-Roman times. The body was seen as being made up of four humors – blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. Excesses of one of the humors were believed to be the causes of medical disorders. Because asthmatic individuals experienced coughing and increased congestion, asthma was seen as a phlegmatic disorder.

Common treatments for asthma during this time included bloodletting, herbs, and – hard as it is to believe in this day and age – tobacco smoking. Another treatment that Beethoven may have tried was drinking coffee, which was used to ease asthma symptoms beginning in the eighteenth century. Interestingly, coffee does actually have properties that aid in the dilation of bronchial passages. Theobromine and theophylline, present in coffee, are natural anti-asthmatic compounds that help stop bronchospasms and open constricted bronchial passages.

From asthma and lead poisoning to deafness - that caused him to cut off piano legs and put his ear to the floor so he could hear his compositions - and through the sadness and sickness that made up much of Beethoven’s life, a music came forth so beautiful that it has withstood the test of time and the ever-shifting wave of public taste.

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