Schubert's Heavy Metal Therapy

Emi Ferguson

Artist Propulsion Lab - S1 E5 - This Composer is Sick: Schubert’s Heavy Metal Therapy

Release Date: September 1, 2022

This Composer is Sick - Ep 2 Schubert's Heavy Metal Therapy

John Schaefer: I’m John Schaefer, and you’re listening to the Artist Propulsion Lab, WQXR’s incubator for emerging and mid-career classical musicians and composers. Every other Thursday for the next few months, one artist explores a topic important to them.

This week, flute player Emi Ferguson continues her miniseries, “This Composer is Sick,” exploring the impact of syphilis on classical composers. Today, she’s taking a look at composer Franz Schubert. Here’s Emi.


EMI: Whenever I mention to classical music lovers that I’m working on a series about the impact of Syphilis on classical composers, they always ask me, "Are you going to talk about Schubert!" The answer is yes.

Schubert is one of my favorite composers who died way (way) too soon - at the very young age of 31 in 1828. And yet, in his short 31 years, he composed hundreds of remarkable works, including this one...


Here to help us talk about Schubert is scholar and James H. Ottaway Professor of Music at Bard College Christopher Gibbs -

Christopher Gibbs: I'm a professor of music history at Bard college and the co-artistic director of the Bard music festival.

EMI:  Christopher is currently working on his fourth book about Schubert.

Christopher Gibbs: I've been in the Schubert business for a very long time.

We’ll also be hearing some more from our resident syphilis expert, Dr. Sheila Lukehart. 

Sheila Lukehart: I could talk about syphilis for the rest of my life.

EMI: So with that, let’s dive in!

Music: Schubert, Piano Sonata D. 960 - 1. Molto moderato

EMI: First, it’s worth pointing out that Schubert is harder to research than composers like Beethoven and Mozart, because we don’t actually have many letters or journals written by Schubert himself…

Christopher Gibbs: Less than a hundred letters, most of them fairly trivial, a few scattered diary entries, a poem. So there's very little that comes from Schubert,

EMI: We don’t have medical records from Schubert. A lot of what we do know about Schubert comes from people who knew him, and even those accounts were sometimes recorded decades after he died. That said, scholars are pretty certain he had syphilis.  

Christopher Gibbs: There are all these things that are, um, you sort of. Piece together the jigsaw puzzle of evidence.

EMI: We know that when he was 25 or 26, Schubert was hospitalized, and it’s thought that he probably contracted syphilis not long before this time. This was in late 1822 or early 1823, around the time when he was composing Die Schöne Müllerin, and the famous “Unfinished” Eighth Symphony. Around this time, Schubert writes

“The circumstances of my health still do not permit me to go outside the house.”

EMI: Even though no one wanted to talk about it, it is estimated that up to one in five people had syphilis in some parts of Europe in the 19th century. Syphilis had been around in Europe long enough that people could recognize the symptoms. 

Sheila Lukehart: The clinicians then were pretty savvy and there are detailed descriptions of the different stages of syphilis, the timeframe for the different stages of syphilis. So it was diagnosed clinically.

Christopher Gibbs: One of the more telling things is who his doctors were. So we don't have medical, uh, reports from them, but, uh, two doctors, uh, by name were syphilis experts Ernst Rinna and Joseph Vering.

EMI: These doctors were pretty well-known at the time. If any doctors were going to recognize syphilis, it would have been these two. 

Christopher Gibbs: Rinna was a, uh, medical advisor to the emperor.

EMI: The Austrian emperor, that is.

Christopher Gibbs: And Dr. Vering, uh, had written two books, uh, in the 1820s before Schubert's death, uh, about syphilis and about its treatment. So to counter the myth of Schubert as this neglected poor figure, uh, he's, he's getting top medical, uh, help.

EMI: As a reminder, the antibiotic pencillin only came into widespread use after World War II, which was more than 100 years away. So what did these two prominent doctors use to treat syphilis at the time? Well, in Vering’s second book… 

Christopher Gibbs: the principle discussion is around this treatment with mercury.

EMI: You heard that right. Mercury, the heaviest metal. To help us explain in a New York minute, here’s WQXR’s Jeff Spurgeon.

JEFF: And now, a word about mercury Mercury, not the god, not the planet, but the chemical element. You know, mercury! Quicksilver! There were a couple of dozen medicinal mercury compounds in use a hundred or so years ago. But those compounds had some, uh, side effects, including:

  • Coughing
  • Headaches
  • Fever
  • Difficulty breathing and swallowing
  • Sudden vision changes, including blindness
  • Mood swings
  • Memory loss
  • Brain damage
  • Seizures
  • And DEATH

The point is, don’t take mercury, it’s poison! 

EMI: Yikes! It’s wild to think about the things we used to use for medicine, and Mercury, had been used as a treatment for syphilis since the 1500s.

Sheila Lukehart: It was applied as an ointment, um, called “inunction,” onto the skin. It was also given by mouth occasionally, it was heated so that it vaporized and that you inhaled the fumes. Occasionally it was even injected into the body. They treated you until you started to salivate profusely. But salivation was thought to help rid the body of, of syphilis 

EMI: And this wasn’t just a one time thing, either.

Sheila Lukehart: Treatment went on periodically for years and years. So you got a lot of, a lot of, um, exposure to mercury. There, there was a saying, “one night with Venus, a lifetime with mercury.”

EMI: Did it really help?

Sheila Lukehart: Not a lot. There's not very much evidence at all that it directly killed the treponeme, but it was thought that it was irritating enough to the body that the immune response kind of got turned on and that the, the host defenses, um, were stimulated, whether that really affected the course of, of syphilis was unclear.

People were so terrified of this infection that they were willing to give people mercury or willing to take mercury.

EMI: But wait there’s more to this treatment. Patients were told not to drink coffee, wine, or milk. Just water and tea. You were also told not to bathe, not to change your sheets, for weeks, all while isolating yourself from others. 

Christopher Gibbs: It's, it's harrowing to read what the, what the treatment was. So, so a lot of the pieces yes. Sort of fit together between what his doctor was, uh, describing as treatment. And what we know of Schubert drinking a lot of tea or of, of course being isolated.

EMI: Schubert complained of lesions, had to shave his head, loss of voice, rashes, and aching bones.

Sheila Lukehart: T. Pallidum can also cause inflammation of the outer covering of the long bones, like the shins of, you know, the long bones in the body, um, it's called periostitis and that inflammation can be chronic.

And so people do complain of bone pain with syphilis. People also have bone and joint pain as a result of mercury treatment. So it could have been, it could have been either.

EMI: So, while some of Schubert’s health complaints may have been due to syphilis, some may also  have been as a result of the mercury treatment itself, since (as we’ve heard), mercury is toxic.

EMI: Poor Schubert really just couldn’t catch a break when it came to his health. In 1824, he writes:

"imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair over this ever makes things worse and worse, instead of better..."

And for the remaining years of his life after this letter, his health would go up and down again and again. But his career — that was actually gaining momentum. At least in part because of the impact of the death of Schubert’s hero – Beethoven.

Christopher Gibbs: The death of Beethoven in some ways really opened up a space that quite literally the musicians that had premiered Beethoven's late last, uh, string quartets, and other music, are performing Schubert's music. Schubert's reaching out to publishers beyond Vienna to Beethoven's publishers elsewhere in Germany. 

EMI: Schubert dies 20 months later, a little more than a year and a half after Beethoven. But not before he composes some of his most famous works, just in that last year and a half. Works like – Winterreise and Schwanengesang, the C Major String Quintet…

Christopher Gibbs: …and on and on and on it, it's, it's just one miracle after another. And if we wanna put this in the context of, uh, a, a really dying man doing this, it, it becomes just almost inconceivable.

EMI: But did he know he was dying when he was writing all of this? It’s not really clear. 

Christopher Gibbs: One of the ways we sort of think we know Schubert is of course, through his music, because we imagine what type of person would write this type of music, but even that is treacherous because then you take this music that's of extraordinary lyrical beauty and light, joyous music to things that are very dark and looking to the abyss. 

EMI: And sometimes those shifts happen quite suddenly.

Christopher Gibbs: You're hearing the most beautiful Schubertian lyricism that is sort of interrupted and ruined, one might say by this explosion of sort of uncontrolled and uncontrollable, uh, maybe we'd say anger or violence or a volcanic eruption. Uh, and then it goes on a dime back to being in paradise in this beautiful lyrical music. It's hard not to think that that may have an autobiographical component to that.

It's a tricky business with all composers to try to map on necessarily sad music and sad times, happy music and happy times.

EMI: Just listen to his very last song, “die Taubenpost.”

MUSIC: Die Taubenpost

Christopher Gibbs: If somebody is 25 years old and gets what he understands is something of a death sentence that, uh, uh, he knows the course of, uh, syphilis and his doctors know the course of it and it can be to early death or to madness or things that are not pleasant. Then, how does that affect what you do?

MUSIC: Shepherd on the Rock

EMI: At the same time, it seems like his death came as a surprise. In the weeks before his death Schubert is looking toward the future. He’s working and writing a lot - Schubert composes almost to the end of his life. In his last days, he’s taking counterpoint lessons with a famous teacher, he’s looking at proofs of Winterreise - he’s even writing sketches for a new symphony. He also took a 40 mile walk to Haydn’s grave outside Vienna (long walks were also part of the prescribed treatment for syphilis). It was only in the last week or two of his life that his health really took a particular turn for the worse.

Christopher Gibbs: So he was doing these things and socializing and going out to a dinner where he didn't like the fish. And that was the last thing he ate before taking to his bed.

EMI: That is a sadly ironic last meal for the composer of the Trout. 

MUSIC: Ending of “Die Forelle,” (The Trout)

But seriously though, his death caught his friends by surprise. 

Christopher Gibbs: I think one of them says something, “well, I saw him on Wednesday!”

I think that, that there wasn't this alarm bell considering as well that his health had fluctuated so much, uh, over a period of years.

EMI: What did he die of? Unlike the rest of his medical records, we do have Schubert’s death certificate. But, unfortunately, the cause it lists is vague. 

Christopher Gibbs: What was put on his death certificate was more of a generic type of cause of death, for many people in Vienna in the 1820s.

EMI: It lists a condition in German called “Nervenfeber,” which could be translated literally as “nerve fever” or “nervous fever,” but again it’s not really clear what this is, and it also has a history of being mistranslated, causing even more confusion.

What about syphilis? 

There is one form of syphilis that might be relevant and that is known to happen past the secondary stage - syphilitic meningitis, when the bacteria 

Sheila Lukehart: go into the outer layers of the brain. usually about three to five years into your course of syphilis

EMI: Regardless of which form and stage of syphilis it might have been, there’s one other reason to think Schubert’s death may have been from complications from syphilis. 

Christopher Gibbs: there's some speculation that they were trying mercury treatment again at the very, very end. 

EMI: But ultimately, when talking about Schubert, there are so many things that are difficult to know for sure, because

Christopher Gibbs: in contrast to really the great composers that, that Schubert, the, the hard documentation from him is, is, uh, so much, uh, less.

And I should say that with a lot of composers, Uh, there is sort of a, a subdiscipline of diagnosing and the medical conditions of great figures. And of course it's often contested amongst, you know, wonderful contemporary doctors today that love music and love and are knowledgeable. But most of what I've read, concerning Schubert, there is a good bit of unanimity that syphilis was what his condition was.

EMI: And Schubert’s music makes us only want to know more about his life, but, unfortunately we may never be able to fully understand how this disease impacted him. But we do have an example of what happens when we take Schubert with a different kind of heavy metal.


Next time, we’ll take a look at the case of Czech composer, Bedrich Smetana, and how he may have written a musical portrait of a symptom of his syphilis into one of his most famous works. And as a reminder, If you’re concerned that you might syphilis, or any sexually transmitted infection, don’t be afraid to go to a nearby sexual health clinic. You can find links to clinics here in New York City in the episode description and on the episode webpage. 

I’m Emi Ferguson, thanks for listening!

John Schaefer: This episode was produced by Max Fine and Emi Ferguson, and was edited by Matt Frassica. Additional production assistance by Hanako Yamaguchi and Jade Jiang. 

Special thanks to Karim Sulayman and Yi-heng Yang, Matthew Rose and Malcom Martineau, Peter Dugan, Hope Lies Within, and the Greene Space, as well as Parnassus Records, and Stone Records, for allowing us to use their recordings of Schubert’s works. 

I’m John Schaefer, see you next time.

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