Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) is generally considered the greatest composer in the history of music. He was born in Bonn, Germany but moved to Vienna in his early twenties to study music with Joseph Haydn. Somewhere around 1800 he began suffering from tinnitus (noises in the ear) and hearing loss. The cause of Beethoven’s deafness remains unknown, though various experts have attributed it to syphilis (Hayden, 2003), beatings from his father, lead poisoning, typhoid, or the newest theory, otosclerosis (Mai, 2007).
Beethoven also experienced severe gastrointestinal distress, powerful headaches (he even had several teeth pulled in the hopes of relieving some of his pain), an abscessed jaw, recurrent rheumatic pains, and frequent cardiac arrhythmia (which he set to music in a piano sonata, Opus 81a, Les abieux).
Historians are lucky to have a rich cache of letters to and from Beethoven as well as his Conversation Books, the writing pads that he used to communicate with others when he could no longer hear audible speech. There are references by Beethoven to homeopathy in this written documentation, and it is well known that his doctor between 1820 and 1826 was Dr. Anton Braunhofer, a professor of biology at the University of Vienna. Beethoven’s nephew, Karl, described Dr. Braunhofer as using homeopathic medicine “because he too follows fashions in medicine” (Beethoven, 1981, 21; Mai, 2007, 127). Braunhofer also recommended certain dietary changes, including avoidance of wine, coffee, and spices. Braunhofer admonished Beethoven that he “must live according to nature” (Schweisheimer, 1945).
In late April 1825, Beethoven was suffering from inflammation of his bowel, and in May he was spitting blood. Initially, the prescriptions given him didn’t work, and Beethoven’s nephew complained that he was required to make him specific meals, one rule of which was serving only steak for lunch. Several sources acknowledge that the treatment allowed him to return to work and finish a quartet in July 1825 (String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132) (Hellenbroich, 1995; Takacs, 2007). By August 1825, Beethoven wrote to his associate and early biographer, Anton Schindler: “My doctor saved me, because I could no longer write music, but now I can write notes which help to relieve me of my troubles” (Mai, 2007, 126).
Ultimately, Beethoven expressed such appreciation to and for Dr. Braunhofer that he composed two canons in his honor (of forty-three canons in total): the Four-Part Canon in C Major (WoO 189, “Doktor, sperrt das Tor dem Tod”—“Doctor, bar the gate to death, notes save from distress”) and Canon in Two Parts in C Major (WoO 190, “Ich war hier, Doktor”—“I was here, Doctor.”).
Over his life Beethoven had sought the care of various conventional physicians and was known to refer to them as “medical asses” (Hayden, 2003, 78). Composers such as Beethoven, literary greats such as Goethe, and many others in the creative arts were known to join the political leaders and the wealthy classes of Germans in going to homeopathic doctors and to spas and natural medicine centers in Teplitz, Marienbad, and Driburg (Maretzki and Seidler, 1985, 395–396).
In early February 1826, Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776–1830), a violinist, friend, and teacher of Beethoven, assured Beethoven that Braunhofer was very skillful, and further, he told him that their mutual close friend and confident Nikolaus Zmeskall, who had suffered from gout, was particularly enthusiastic about homeopathy (Albrecht, 1996, 132).
In late February 1826, Braunhofer treated Beethoven for symptoms of dysentery and gout, at which time he discouraged Beethoven from drinking coffee, because, the doctor said, it would be bad for his stomach and his nerves over the long term, even though the stimulant effect would seem to provide temporary relief (Mai, 2007, 127). Braunhofer prescribed a homeopathic dose of Cinchona officinalis (Peruvian bark, from which quinine is a primary ingredient), and Beethoven later expressed gratitude for the benefits he received from the doctor’s treatment.
Although Beethoven moved to Baden, some 300 miles away from Vienna where Braunhofer practiced, the composer sought Braunhofer’s care when he traveled to Vienna. When Beethoven asked Braunhofer to come to Baden to treat him, Braunhofer declined, saying that it was too far a distance to travel. Several historians note that Beethoven did not follow the doctor’s advice to stop drinking wine in 1826 and that this created some tension between the doctor and his patient. Braunhofer’s advice to stop drinking was indeed sound, especially in light of the fact that Beethoven died in 1827 of cirrhosis of the liver (Schweisheimer, 1945). Although Beethoven scholars say that he was not a “drinker,” he was very fond of table wines, consumed in moderate quantities, and was very reluctant to abstain.
It should also be noted that even though the emperor of Austria had declared the practice of homeopathic medicine to be illegal in 1819 and even though it remained illegal until that emperor died in 1835, homeopathy was still practiced by a small and select group of highly respected physicians and even priests. Dr. Matthias Marenzeller, captain of the medical corps in Vienna, was a leading advocate of homeopathy, as was Father Veith (1787–1877), pastor at the famed St. Stephens Cathedral in Vienna. Homeopathy was appreciated enough in 1820 that even Prince Schwarzenberg, commander-in-chief of Austria’s allied armies against Napoleon, went to Leipzig, Germany, to seek treatment from Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy.