According to some biographers, particularly those who are interested in psychoanalysis and depth psychology, Beethoven may have been a victim of a mental disorder. The first who suggested this possibility was Radestock and he did so in 1884. But his view was completely overlooked. Newman (1927) did a better attempt and, fitting to his times, his view was very Freudian. This resulted in speculative digressions on Beethoven's 'disturbed' sexuality. In principle the view of the Sterbas (1954) was not very different and later on Solomon defended the hypothesis that Beethoven may have been a homosexual (see for my view question #8). Already in the picture for some decades is the bipolar disorder and in 2002 Davies strongly defended this hypothesis. In 2003 Kopitz digressed on the borderline syndrome. Are these disorders possible diagnoses for Beethoven?
Firstly the bipolar disorder. Manic depressive persons show various striking symptoms, almost absent in Beethoven. In manic periods they are overactive, they hardly sleep or eat and sometimes they want to buy the Empire State Building (or behaviour the like). In depressive periods they hardly leave their beds and the only thing they want is to die. Often such patients are unable to take care of themselves, at least those who do not get modern medicines. In Beethoven's days such medicines did not exist. Over the years the depressive part of the disorder often will be the winner and suicide or suicide attempts are relatively high. It is a fact that Beethoven's music shows strong and impressive shifts between sadness and joy. But then again, don't we all experience such feelings every now and then? Does this make us victims of the bipolar disorder? Of course not. The only difference between Beethoven and us is the fact that he used those shifts for his music. And THAT is exactly why the music speaks to so many people. We know that he's talking about us. Some musicologists think that those strinking mood swings in Beethoven's music simply prove that he suffered from the bipolar disorder. Obviously those persons simply know little about the disorder. The counterproof: Beethoven was a very disciplined worker. He arose at sunrise, drank a lot of coffee and went to his desk. He worked till noon and then left for a long walk. In the afternoon he went to a restaurant for a meal and he spent the evening again at his desk. Before going to sleep he used to read a few pages of a book. It went this way year after year and that doesn't fit at all to a manic depressive patient. It is true that he twice suffered from a depression: in 1802 and 1813. But in those years he had good reasons for such feelings. In 1802 he realized that he probably would go deaf and in 1813 he had lost his famous Immortal Beloved. Very comprensible, in my opinion, that he was not a happy man in those years. The newest author on Beethoven's state of mind is Mai. Though he also digresses on the bipolar disorder he paints a more mellowed and more likely picture than Davies.
Secondly the borderline syndrome. This syndrome is said to be related to (sexual) child abuse. For Beethoven this could have been the case, at least more or less. However, looking at the parameters as can be found in the DSM-IV, I have my doubts about this diagnosis. Nevertheless musicologist Kopitz published an article devoted to this hypothesis. I tend to disagree with his reasonings and conclusions. See, for instance, parameter #5 of the DSM: suicidal thoughts and behaviour. According to Kopitz this would fit to Beethoven. But only at one moment in his life he seriously seemed to have thought of ending his life by his own hands: in 1802, when he penned down the Heiligenstadt Testament. But wasn't it comprehensible under the circumstances? I think so. He began to realize that he would go deaf, he, a musician of extremely rare talent, a musical genius, he, who knew so well that he had an immense task, a great role in history. Also unlikely is parameter #3, put forward by Kopitz: a disturbed identity, uncertainty about the own identity. Beethoven?!? Such a strong, resolute personality? And Beethoven's impressive capacity to be a disciplined worker in spite of all his problems doesn't fit to the borderline syndrome either. However, it cannot be denied that other parameters surely fit to Beethoven (#2, 6, 8: instabile relationships, switching back and forward between idolatry and disdain; instabile, excited feelings; extremely hot-tempered and great anxiety). Kopitz writes that it is a problem to try to diagnose the mental state of dead persons. Very well put indeed. He himself should have been a bit more modest...
Lange-Eichbaum, W. Genie, Irrsinn und Ruhm. Neu bearbeitet von W.Ritter. (Munchen/Basel, 1985).
Davies, Peter J. The Character of a Genius: Beethoven in Perspective. (Westport/London, 2002).
Kopitz, Klaus M. Beethovens Wesen. Gedanken zu einer "Borderline-Personlichkeit". In: Der "mannliche" und "weibliche" Beethoven. (Bonn, 2003).
Mai, Francois Martin. Diagnosing Genius: The Life and Death of Beethoven. (Montreal, 2007).