‘Only 6 composers had syphilis’

A British surgeon has reviewed the post-mortem evidence on great composers and finds that many have been wilfully maligned by their biographers.

“The list of composers who had syphilis is short,’ says Jonathan Noble, in a promotion for a forthcoming book. ‘The list of composers said to have had syphilis is enormous.’

Read on here.


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  • Quote:

    “Ultimately, Noble says, the great composers have done so much to enlighten people: ‘It’s a pity that other people have rushed around slagging them off when we actually are the custodians of their reputation.'”

    For many people, great composers are not allowed to be human, and thus they go through their bed linen and cupboard, sniffing for proof of human flaws, which are then projected on the scale of the greatness of their works. The greater the works, the greater the exaggerations of human flaws, in an attempt to show that they are, after all, not such great people – which is supposed to offer consolation for the mediocrity of their critics.

    • That is surely not exclusive to great composers! Any competent artist can expect much of the same if they aren’t careful. I could write a book!

  • Wonder why Schubert gets nailed while the other five get a pass? This “research” doesn’t seem to me very much sounder than that he is criticising.

    • My question as well. Who are the other five? I’d never heard it advanced anyway that Britten’s heart condition was syphilitic.

  • What I was most surprised that “If you are a true alcoholic, there is no way you can go around composing operas, etc…”. It is true? I had a prejudice that…

    • Mussorgksy’s alcoholism was proverbial, but maybe he was only being slandered by Rimsky and the others?

      • No slander. He was definitely an alcoholic. Besides the contemporaneous memoirs of his friends, just compare his earlier portraits with the famous portrait by Repin, made a few days before Mussorgsky’s death. Red nose, bleary eyes, etc.

    • There is something called a “functional alcoholic” where the person is indeed addicted to alcohol but can continue to live their daily life, sometimes at a very high level. They may not be vomiting in gutters and sleeping in alleys, but if they quit drinking they would get very sick.

      (We see them in my hospital fairly often: come in for something routine like a knee replacement, don’t tell the doctor you’re an alcoholic because you don’t believe you are one, then spend a week post surgery having the DT’s and another week regaining your health & strength, when people normally go home in 2 days.)

  • The definition of alcoholism and addiction is very slippery. For a while, sometimes a long while, one’s brain can adjust to heavy substance abuse, since new neural connections form and one can still be functional. In other words, the brain compensates.

    However, for some, eventually enough of the brain is destroyed so that adequate compensation is no longer possible. However many do not reach the point where too much of the brain is destroyed and always stay functional, although seldom at the level of functioning the person would have had he/she not had the heavy substance abuse.

    In other words a creative genius can remain creative while abusing substances but his/her work would probably not be at the level it would have been had he/she not abused substances.

    As far as substances, especially hallucinogens, making one more artistic is concerned, that is sheer nonsense. True artistry requires working within a structure, that is, “making sense”. Hallucinogens destroy focus.

    Ditto with mental illness. There may be something about the brain chemistry of a creative genius that makes him/her more prone to mood swings or depression but there is no artistry in the writings or drawings of someone who is in a psychotic episode.

    Not all self expression is artistic.

  • This is only more ‘Beethoven fussing’ – come up with something ‘new’ about Beethoven and get published. Patients with Paget’s disease (osteitis deformans) present with a progressive bone deformity that would not be missed at autopsy even if the syndrome (a consistent combination of symptoms and medical signs) was not described the 1870’s.

  • Sibelius was quite an alcoholic. Not sure what that ‘proves’, given the musical silence of his last few decades…

  • I don’t see how saying someone caught an STD – or indeed suffered from alcoholism – is ‘maligning ‘ them..

        • So if someone wrote that you had an STD or were alcoholic, you would simply consider it as inaccurate? I, like many others, would consider is a libellous slur.

          • Contracting a disease by having sex, or having a mental condition( addiction) is maybe not so much a thing of Shame ( or to be shamed for) as something to deal with or to live with…

  • Bernstein died of complications from AIDS. That has always been hushed up, just like he removed all the gay he could from Candide’s “final” version.

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