Diseases and Destinies of Famous Composers Why Should One Even Write about Composers' Diseases?

By Breitenfeld, Darko; Breitenfeld, Tomislav et al. | Alcoholism and Psychiatry Research, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Diseases and Destinies of Famous Composers Why Should One Even Write about Composers' Diseases?


Breitenfeld, Darko, Breitenfeld, Tomislav, Buljan, Danijel, Skrgatic, Lana, Vuksanovic, Marina, Zivkovic, Marija, Alcoholism and Psychiatry Research


The history of music from the earliest times said very little about the private lives of composers, and even less about their ailments. An interesting fact is that a composers' life expectancy was very high (over 60 years) from earliest times to the late 19th century. That can perhaps be attributed to the stability and strictness of the lifestyle needed for their music and practice regime. The other explanation is that only older affirmed composers gained world fame. Lately a new trend in music history can be observed - young composers, those that died before they could gain world fame are being revised in music archives in order to reesCorrenspodence tablish the worth of their music (Schein, Arriaga, Linley, Vaneas, Krezma etc.).1-18-19 One of the first records of composers' ailments and deaths can be found as early as 13th - 18th century, and some records of early and dramatic deaths due to the plague (the black death) from the beginning of the 16th century on (1506. Obrecht, Agrícola and Adam von Fulda).1,18'19 About 50 plague deaths among composers have been examined, just to name a few: Croatian composer Jelic who, by most accounts, died in Saverne (Alsace); Falconieri, Rossi, Bakfark, Guerrero, Widman, Schmelzer and others. Further data can be found regarding composers' diseases during 16 th century (Palestrina, Lassus, Gesualdo, Gibbons...),1'18-19 accounts mostly collected from earlier times, especially from 17 01 and 18 01 century that bring us a whole collections of plausible, extensive findings concerning composers' fatalities that we describe in the book.1 During 19 th century diagnostic methods as well as the systematization of diseases has improved, therefore we notice increased incidence of certain diagnoses, such as tumors, syphilis etc. However, during 20th century an improvement in therapeutic methods occurs, so the lifespan of composers increases, they live well into their 70's and 80's. We mention over 100 octogenarian composers with preserved, although much humbler composing abilities, who lived into their old age, as well as over 40 nonagenarian composers. On the other hand, we see a number of young, unstable, mostly jazz musicians who barely lived to be 30, as opposed to a generation of modern, affirmed jazz musicians (Gillespie and others) who outlived their predecessors by as much as 50 years. The extreme cases include a generation of rock musicians who died in their 20s (of drug abuse, diseases, accidents or have committed suicide); several of them died exactly at the age of 27 (J. Joplin, Hendrix, Cobain, Morrison).2 Some composers / musicians perished in so called »red terror«, holocaust, land or air traffic accidents, drowning, poisoning etc. Suicide was the cause of death for many composers (Tchaikovsky);3 not to mention general contagious diseases (Mozart,4 Schubert, 5 Mahler6, Respighi, Bizet etc.)1-18-19 or some more specific ones like tuberculosis (Pergolesi, Arriaga, Vaneas, Lisinski, Weber, Chopin,7 Paganin^etc.),1,18,19 syphilis (Wolf,8 Schumann, Smetana, Chabrier, Donizetti9)1,18,19 or aforementioned plague - the black death (that accompanied wars and starvation). Some other afflictions took the lives of a great number of composers - tumors (Debussy, Gershwin, Field),1,18,19 ulcers (Hoist),1,18,19 uremia (R. Strauss, Albeniz)1,18,19 diabetes, (Milhaud, Ysaye, Ditters v. D.),1,18,19 pneumonia (Bachs),10 as well as mental disorders (Balakirev, Musorgsky),1,18,19 stroke (Gluck,11 Verdi, Mendelssohn,12 Gounod, Britten),1,18,19 and later, also heart attacks - sudden cardiac deaths (Martinu,1,18,19 Wagner, Roussel, Rimsky - Korsakov,13 Borodin,14 Offenbach, Reger)1,18,19 of overstrained composers. Blind- ness and deafness were a great limitation for a number of composers; nevertheless, some of the greatest were uninterrupted in their creative work by these handicaps (Haendel, Bach, Beethoven,15 Smetana16).

From the earliest times, we have plenty of data about the long living composers (Stravinski,17 Kelemen,1,18,19 Papandopulo,1 Gotovac1), but the information about their diseases or causes of death is usually very scarce or nonexistent - they mostly left the public eye and became secluded, due to their chronically bad health and weakness (Leonin, Blondel, Perotin, Frauenlob, Giovanni da Cascia, Machaut, Landini, Dunstable, Dufay, Binchois, Ockeghem, Tinctoris, Josquin des Prez, Isaac, Jannequin, Senfl, Willaert, Sachs, Morales, Arcadelt, Tallis, Clemens non Papa, Zarlino, Waelrant, Le Jeune, Byrd, Victoria, Eccard, Morley, Sweelinck, Bull and Dowland). …

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