Robert Winston's Musical Analysis

Great composers turn out to have been a funny old bunch.

Robert Winston's Musical Analysis
Radio 4

A series of programmes discussing the medical conditions of composers (Tuesdays, 1.30pm, repeated Saturdays, 3.30pm) continued with Schubert (10 August), whose death at 31 many believe to have been caused by syphilis. Yet when Robert Winston, the presenter, questioned several doctors, they merely established that Schubert "was definitely treated for something" and "could have had any illness, both physical and psychological". Basically, it's anyone's guess. His beloved girlfriend's marriage to a master baker left the composer heartbroken, but it's possible he was gay, or even died a virgin. Others say he ate a fish that was decidedly off after a long walk to visit Haydn's grave. My favourite biographical detail about Schubert - mentioned only in passing at the end of the programme - is that he started taking lessons in composing just weeks before he died. Lessons! The weird modesty of that.

By contrast, the programme about Beethoven (3 August) was definitive, and came to the conclusion that the maestro was above all things smelly. Naturally, a great deal was said about the composer's deafness, but then those of us whose guilty pleasure is the ridiculous Gary Oldman biopic Immortal Beloved (to see Oldman with his selfish, glass-doorknob-blue eyes wiggling an ear trumpet and constructing his "I'm seriously worried" face is about as authentic as the gimp, but the man's still searing hot) have falsely believed Beethoven's violent father to be responsible for his disability. Turns out the deafness could have been brought on by typhoid. We may even know for certain one day - someone present at the sawing apart of Beethoven's skull after his death slipped a few fragments of the bone into his pocket, which are now being analysed. ("We have them! As we speak, in America they are being tested!")

The conversation turned repeatedly to Beet­hoven's poor hygiene, or possibly his choice of exfoliant, I'm not certain, the interviewee was German ("His personal toiletriez were not all that aczeptable"). We were asked to consider the composer's chronic constipation. No Ex-Lax or trip in a plane caught in a particularly dynamic thermal was going to shift Beethoven's bowels . . . until the diarrhoea kicked in. The composer actually died of cirrhosis of the liver but possibly drank so much to mask the smell - Martinis have such a lovely, fresh fragrance, after all - emanating from his trousers (which he held up with string).

But all of this paled compared to the programme on Rachmaninov (27 July), which suggested that not only did he have a thyroid condition that extended the size and mobility of his fingers to superhuman levels, but that he was embarrassed by his own work. Some claim that, when listening to recordings of him playing, they detect a note that seems almost "apologetic". After the ruinous critical and public reception in Russia for his first piano concerto, Rach had to be hypnotised (literally) into believing himself an artist of worth, and dedicated a sonata to his doctor in thanks. It is possible the hypnosis didn't work quite as well as the great man deserved. One thing thrilled Rachmaninov in particular, incidentally: a visit to an American diner after every performance. There are no conditions that the guzzling of an ice-cold Coke can't soothe.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan