Fans of Ludwig van Beethoven may find his compositions heartfelt, but their sentiments may be more accurate than they realize.
An essay published in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine by Musicology Prof. Steven M. Whiting; Dr. Joel Howell, professor of history of medicine and Dr. Zachary D. Goldberger, cardiologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, suggests that Beethoven’s music may have been influenced by his own heartbeat.
The essay examines the unusual rhythms found in some of Beethoven’s most famous compositions — such as sudden key changes or tempo changes — and speculates these irregular rhythms may mimic the arrhythmic rhythms of Beethoven’s own heart.
Whiting said the idea for the essay emerged out of interdisciplinary curiosity.
“It started because of two musically-inclined doctors and a musically-inclined musicologist who wondered together whether this visceral connection to his own heartbeat might add yet another dimension to Beethoven’s music,” he said.
The group studied the rhythmic patterns of several compositions of Beethoven, focusing in particular on passages that were both emotionally stimulating and rhythmically irregular.
These irregularities were striking, the authors wrote. Whiting said they compared electrocardiograms, which measure electrical activity of the heart, with the music. They concluded that Beethoven’s own cardiac arrhythmia, a condition that causes the heart to beat with an irregular rhythm, may have influenced some of the rhythms.
Beethoven has been linked with a host of other health problems as well, such as liver disease, kidney disease and deafness.
His deafness, the authors wrote in the essay, could have also contributed to a heightened sense of awareness of his own heartbeat.
“If you were to sit in silence for a while, you would become more aware of your heartbeat,” Howell said. “Beethoven’s world was silent.”
One of the passages studied, “Cavatina,” is a movement in Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 130. It is the slow movement in the quartet and has been long recognized as exhibiting overwhelming emotional force. In the passage, the lower strings throb slow repeating notes, while the first violin is rhythmically unhinged from the lower voices.
“The passage is almost too distraught to align with them rhythmically,” Whiting said.
The emotion in the passage is deliberate. In fact, in the composer direction written for this passage is the word “beklemmt,” a German word that could be taken to mean “heavy of heart.” The phrase “heavy of heart” may not only refer to a psychological emotion, the authors wrote. It could also be referring to the pressure felt on the heart that is associated with cardiac arrhythmia.
“We talk about music being heartfelt, and it is interesting because in some cases, music might be literally heartfelt,” Howell said. “Music might literally reflect how your heart feels. Your heart beats continuously your entire life. That’s pretty amazing. You’re intimately related to your heartbeat, so it’s not surprising that it might make its way into great artists’ works.”