Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Scandalous Overtures — Franz Schubert: One Too Many Nights Out

A bunch of years ago I got a call from a non-musician friend who had a question for me. His pastor had given a sermon in which he ascribed Beethoven’s death to syphilis, and never having heard this, my friend wanted to know if Beethoven had indeed died from that dreaded STD.

“Heck no,” said I. (In truth, I almost certainly used more colorful language.) I remember telling my friend that Beethoven’s autopsy revealed that he had cirrhosis of the liver; perhaps I even remembered to add that he was also likely suffering from renal papillary necrosis, pancreatitis, and possibly even diabetes mellitus.

Among the terrible diseases of the nineteenth century, two stick out for the length of time they took to kill their victims: tuberculosis (“consumption”) and syphilis. That, however, is where the resemblance between these two maladies ends.

There was a certain tragic romance associated with tuberculosis in nineteenth century Europe. Dubbed the “White Plague,” TB was thought to imbue its victims with a heightened artistic sensibility. Reflecting on just this, the prototypical Romantic poet Lord George Gordon Byron, wrote, “I should like to die from consumption.” (He didn’t; he died of a septic infection at the age of 36. No romance there at all.) In a letter to a friend, George Sand wrote of her beloved (and consumptive) Frédéric Chopin, “Chopin coughs with infinite grace.” (One wonders if he also had “phantasmagorical phlegm”? “Magical mucus”? Yes, I’ll stop now.) So idealized was the “spiritual purity” tuberculosis presumably bestowed on its sufferers that it became stylish for mid-nineteenth century women to affect the appearance of a consumptive by making their skin as pale as possible. (As fashion statements go, this one makes about as much sense to me as the prison inmate-inspired practice of wearing your pants down around your knees.) Tragic consumptives were frequently portrayed in nineteenth century literature and opera; both Verdi’s La Traviata (1853) and Puccini’s La Bohème (1896) feature consumptive heroines.

There was no such romance attached to syphilis. On the contrary: the stigma associated with syphilis reflected not “heightened artistic sensibility” but rather, moral degeneracy. The physical manifestations of untreated syphilis go far beyond “graceful coughing” and include severe disfigurement and madness. As a sexually transmitted disease, syphilis was (and, to a degree, still is) bound up in moral issues. Primary among those issues is “fault.” Victims of tuberculosis (for example) were perceived as being innocent, having acquired the disease through no fault of their own. But folks with syphilis were blamed for bringing it on themselves as a result of their wickedness. Like those contemporary morons who claim that HIV/AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality, many nineteenth century “moralists” and “godly people” considered syphilis to be a just punishment meted out to those sinners who indulged their flesh and consorted with gutter trash.

It’s for that reason that I’m fascinated by the various lists of people who supposedly had syphilis, lists that reflect the moral stigma associated with syphilis more than medical accuracy. Adolf Hitler is a fixture on these lists, and why not? Shouldn’t arguably the worst person who ever lived have been infected with the most morally reprehensible of diseases? But there’s no evidence from any medical records that Hitler had syphilis. Another denizen of the “syphilis lists” is Napoleon Bonaparte, even though in truth Napoleon died of stomach cancer. And how about Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher who denied the existence of god and whose ideas about “the will to power” and the “Übermensch” (“superman”) helped the Nazis shape their ideology? In fact, Nietzsche died of brain cancer.

One person who did most assuredly die as a result of syphilis was the composer Franz Schubert. He contracted the disease in 1822 when he was just 24 years old. The initial symptoms were terrible enough, but even worse was the knowledge that his life would almost certainly be cut very short. On top of it all was the stigma – the terrible stigma – of being a syphilitic in Biedermeier Vienna. For more info about how Schubert acquired syphilis and the reprobate who posterity has blamed for leading him down the path to perdition tune into “Scandalous Overtures” on Ora TV.

Watch the episode below:

  • Elias

    17 operas? Why haven’t I ever heard of any of them?

  • Peter Cherches

    I love your delivery.