More ink has been spilled than blood when it comes to the ailments of classical music’s greatest composers. From the mysteries of Beethoven’s deafness to Mozart’s supposed execution by the Freemasons – and possible Tourette syndrome – the medical histories of composers have fascinated researchers and readers.
Félix-Joseph Barrias’s Death of Chopin, 1885
In his new book, That Jealous Demon, My Wretched Health: Disease, Death and Composers, retired British surgeon Jonathan Noble cites 140 different diagnoses advanced as the cause of Mozart’s death, quoting Mark Twain: “Researches of many scholars have already thrown much darkness on the subject.” Noble’s mission in writing his book was to use his medical knowledge to shed a little light on the untimely ends of 70 great composers, from Mozart and Bach to Gershwin and Britten.
“When I retired, I had all sorts of plans for things to do that really centred around my two great passions, which are the arts and sport,” Noble tells me over the phone from his home in England, just a few miles down the road from where one of his subjects, Gustav Holst, was born.
When arthritis put paid to the sport and...