Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Scandalous Overtures: Beethoven’s Death Wish

The Fine Line Between Depression and Genius

Where have we heard this before? A beloved, supremely gifted performing artist appears to be at the top of his game and on top of the world. However, unbeknownst to all but a few friends and relatives, he harbors a great darkness within him, a despair that motivates and inspires his art. He is then diagnosed with a progressive and incurable disease, one that will eventually destroy his ability to perform. In his anguish, his mind turns to the most extreme option: suicide.

It sounds awfully familiar in light of Robin Williams’ recent passing. But I am referring here to another performing artist, Ludwig (“my friends call me Louis”) van Beethoven.

The parallels between Louis van Beethoven and Robin McLaurin Williams are striking, even extraordinary, although in the end the manner in which they dealt with their respective catastrophes were entirely different.

Beethoven grew up hard and fast in the backwater German city of Bonn. His astonishing musical talent landed him in Vienna – the capital city of Euro-music – a few days shy of his 22nd birthday.He built his initial fame and fortune on his spectacular improvisations at the piano.

Williams grew up soft and easy in Chicago, suburban Detroit and, finally, Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. His astonishing comedic and theatrical talent landed him at the Juilliard School in New York City – the theatrical capital of the world (sorry, London) — at the age of 22. He built his initial fame and fortune on his spectacular ability to improvise.

Both Beethoven and Williams were dogged by occasionally crippling mental illness. For Williams it was depression and the substance abuse with which he self-medicated. For Beethoven, the wounds inflicted during his childhood – marked, as it was, by physical and emotional abuse, alcoholism (his father’s) and death (his mother’s) — never healed. For both Williams and Beethoven, improvisation and performing provided the outlet, the necessary opportunity to spontaneously bare their manic souls, share their existential angst, and briefly forget their pain.

Beethoven’s hearing loss began around mid-1796; he was 25 years old. By 1802 it was evident that his hearing was only getting worse and that there was nothing he or his doctors could do about it. Even as his career as both a pianist and composer was going ballistic, Beethoven came face-to-face with his worst nightmare: he was going deaf. In the fall of 1802 he fell into a deep depression. He rented a house in the Viennese suburb of Heiligenstadt, determined to finish his Second Symphony and then commit suicide.

But thanks to one of the greatest acts of self-delusion in history he didn’t commit suicide. He convinced himself that God wanted him to be a hero who would conquer fate through music. Thus re-invented, Beethoven embarked on a ten-year compositional jag that changed, forever, the nature of music on our planet.

Yes: as he knew it would, Beethoven’s hearing loss brought his performing career to an end. But he could still compose, and that he did. There can be no doubt that Beethoven’s pain was posterity’s gain: that the radical and revolutionary music he composed in response to his disability could never have been conceived without his hearing loss as a prerequisite.

Sadly, Robin Williams, had no such creative option for coping with his disease. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (although his autopsy revealed that he actually had something worse: Lewy body dementia, an incurable, progressively disabling disease associated with Parkinson’s). Williams knew what was in the cards: hallucinations, paranoia (which he was already suffering from), increasing loss of cognitive function, tremors and a shuffling gait, slurring of speech and, finally, the inability to tend to his own needs. It’s impossible to say how much whether Williams’ diagnosis was related to his suicide, but whether his suicide was symptom of his disease or a reaction to it is, I think, immaterial. This wonderful man, for whom speed and wit and brilliance were everything, could not bear to become a vegetable. He lost hope, and as we all know, without hope…well, enough said.

Check out “Beethoven’s Death Wish” on Scandalous Overtures:

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  1. Robert Greenberg’s excellent presentation about Beethoven helps confirm that Beethoven is the most inspiring figure in music history!
    Out of this tortured man flowed some of the greatest music ever written—music overflowing with every human emotion: love, passion, beauty, angst, rage, grief, joy, peace, and even humor!
    Poor Ludwig suffered a horrible decline until his painful death, but even at the end, he may as well have shaken his fist at God and said: ”Don’t make me come up there!” That’s the kind of spirit and life force he had. He was a man, who if he hadn’t actually lived, could not be imagined.
    For his short lifetime of accomplishments—in spite of abuse and suffering—he brings nothing but joy to the rest of us for eternity. (That story sounds eerily familiar.)
    Next time I feel like complaining about a little inconsequential ache or pain, or I find myself whining about my childhood, all I have to do is think of Beethoven’s childhood and other afflictions—and I count my blessings!
    Thank you Robert Greenberg for honoring the great composers by revealing stories about their lives we otherwise would not know and appreciate. They deserve the attention, and you deserve accolades for doing such a creative job!

  2. I have learned so much from your lectures, and still do. A strange
    connection I share with, gulp, Beethoven and Williams. I started having
    tinnitus since April this year. I already had long term health problems
    (chronic fatigue, a name science uses for ‘I don’t know what it is’, but
    I am not blaming science, the only god I believe in). I am adjusting
    and doing as better as I can, but my life changed for the worst, and
    permanently. Fortunately, it doesn’t look like I am losing my hearing. I
    have thought about suicide many years ago, and when the tinnitus
    problem started, I started to think about suicide again. Strangely, it
    started after I learned all I could about Beethoven and Schumann, but I
    like to think that I am a logical person and that it’s all just a
    coincidence. No voodoo there, as you’d probably agree. I dare not think
    what hell Beethoven has been through. My goodness, what a terrible and
    harsh life. Smetana was another poor wreck, as you know. I greatly
    admire these great composers, as do most of us. As for Robin Williams, I
    am still so sad about his suffering too. I never really thought much of
    his movies etc, but I do clearly remember his role in ‘Mork and Mindy’
    back when I lived as a kid in a little town in Italy. Williams has been
    part of my childhood, I maybe could not ‘get’ the ‘Mork and Mindy’
    series, it seemed kind of attractive and bizarre, and that’s why people
    liked it. But more than the series, I loved the opening music and the
    opening images. I have always loved TV music from series, documentaries,
    news, cartoons, anything, and I remember ‘Mork and Mindy’ very fondly.
    Goodbye, Robin.