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This welcome new book’s title is cited from a letter by Ludwig van Beethoven to a medical friend. Jonathan Noble, a retired surgeon based in Naunton, Gloucestershire, who has counted musicians among his patients, has scoured medical journals as well as a selective list of secondary sources, to conclude that far fewer composers were clinically alcoholic or syphilitic than are rumoured to be in music history. Among the happy non-syphilitics is Benjamin Britten, posthumously diagnosed with the disease in 2013 by a rash biographer. From his scenic perch in the Cotswolds, Dr Noble dismisses the myth that composers often die young just because Schubert and Mozart did, tabulating that of 300 composers considered great over the past millennium, most survived to relative venerability.

That Jealous Demon, My Wretched Health is best when dealing with composers, such as Mozart or Tchaikovsky, whose health is debated in vast bibliographies. Dr Noble weighs the evidence and pronounces that Mozart was probably not afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome, despite a penchant for naughty words. Vincenzo Bellini, who wrote the operas Norma and La sonnambula, likely perished of ulcerative colitis rather than amoebic dysentery, as tradition would have it; meanwhile Brahms was probably a victim of pancreatic, rather than liver, cancer. A French-speaking colleague might have advised Dr Noble that the common Gallic complaint of angine means a sore throat, strep throat, or tonsillitis, and not the English word angina. So Georges Bizet, composer of Carmen, did not claim to have ‘angina of the throat’, as Dr. Noble reports. Likewise, about Maurice Ravel only one biography is consulted here – Roger Nichols’, which although learned does not encompass the full scope of writing in English and French about the composer of Boléro.

In a similar way, Dr Noble’s reading about Franz Schubert apparently stops with an article from 1993 debunking an admittedly cumbersome Freudian interpretation of that musician’s life by the American musicologist Maynard Solomon. Abdicating his usual friendly, objective bedside stance, Dr Noble slates Solomon’s approach as ‘salacious’, even though insightful publications over the past 25 years in English and German have added insight into Schubert’s life and social circle while confirming some of Solomon’s intuitions.

Dr Noble’s observations can be droll, as when Jean Sibelius is likened to ‘that terrifying elderly uncle to be avoided if possible at Christmas’. Other sentences have the clinical chill of case histories: ‘By the early 1840s the full nastiness of Rossini’s chronic gonorrhoeal urethritis was increasingly apparent.’

Certain composers, such as Brahms or George Gershwin, had complaints that even today’s medical science might not have been able to do much with. Although the reader is warned that it would be rash to presume what composers might have done had their lives been extended, we are informed about Edvard Grieg that had modern treatments been applied, ‘we might anticipate survival for another ten to fifteen years, and one suspects that Grieg would have continued composing in much the same way as he always had.’

The latter assertion overlooks the essential unpredictability of great music. Had Grieg survived until 1922 instead of 1907, he might have been exposed to Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto or Edgard Varèse’s Amériques or Arnold Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano Op 25. Can anyone know how he would have responded creatively? After all, unlike medical results, classical music cannot always be predicted with accuracy. If it were, there might be no need to write it. Finally, an appendix of ‘accidental and/or violent deaths’ could have included the notorious murder of the French Baroque musician Jean-Marie Leclair, who always pops up on short lists on bizarre fatalities of composers.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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