Diagnosing Genius: The Life and Death of Beethoven.


288 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 978-0-7735-3190-1
DDC 780'.92




Reviewed by Virginia Gillham

Virginia Gillham is Associate Librarian in the Public Service Library at
the University of Guelph.


Author Francois Mai is a psychiatrist who has done extensive scholarly research into the life of Beethoven, and then recounted it in a manner that is eminently accessible by the lay reader. Anyone with an interest in music and Beethoven, regardless of their understanding of psychology or psychiatry, will find this volume readable and fascinating.


That Beethoven, a musician and composer, was stone deaf before he reached thirty, is widely known. His many other physical and emotional weaknesses, including depression or possibly bi-polar disorder, are not such common knowledge. The author identifies his variety of complaints, speculates on their origins (including the possibility of a certain level of hypochondria), and describes the rudimentary and often misguided treatments available in Beethoven’s day. At the same time, Beethoven’s human interactions, particularly with the opposite sex, are described and speculated upon.


Beethoven was not particularly attractive and, although he is believed to have proposed to several women during his lifetime, he never married. Mai goes so far as to report on conflicting conclusions about the extent of his sexual experience … if any. Regardless, Beethoven has been described as having a certain personal magnetism which made him a figure of interest in social situations.


The book is organized into five sections: the setting (background information), Beethoven’s life (biographical information), his health problems, the interpretation of his health problems, and an entire chapter on the relationship between illness (including mental illness) and creativity. It also includes nearly sixty pages of notes, appendices, and supporting documentation.


Most of the circumstances of Beethoven’s illnesses and their impact on him and on his creativity are the subject of ongoing debate. There seems to be little dispute, however, with the autopsy conducted immediately after his death. He died of liver failure resulting from cirrhosis caused by long-term abuse of alcohol, complicated at the end by kidney failure.


Beethoven was able to transcend an incredible litany of physical and emotional difficulties to compose some of the world’s most beautiful music, expressing joy, peace, and spirituality. This is a fascinating, readable study of a complex genius. Anyone with an interest in any aspect of its subject matter will find it to be immensely informative and entertaining.


Mai, Fran├žois Martin., “Diagnosing Genius: The Life and Death of Beethoven.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 20, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/27626.