Tag Archives: Physiognomy

Paganini and Marfan syndrome

Since the 1950s scientists have increasingly agreed that Paganini was probably a victim of Marfan syndrome—although beneficiary seems a more appropriate word than victim.

The typical characteristics of this pathological condition—a tall, thin body and particularly long, thin arms and hands—are perfectly in keeping with the virtuoso’s somatic characteristics, noted by all who described him and confirmed by the concert sketch by the poet and painter L.P.A. Burmeister , who is the only artist known to have reproduced the violinist’s exact physiognomy (above; click to enlarge).

There can be no doubt that Paganini’s abnormal ligaments—together, of course, with his extraordinary musical talent—were a definite advantage, and by no means a handicap, in his chosen career.

This according to “Nicolò Paganini (1782–1840)” by G. Sperati and D. Felisati (Acta Otorhinolaryngologica Italica XXV/2 [April 2005] pp. 125–128). Today is Paganini’s 230th birthday! Below, Jascha Heifetz play’s the composer’s Caprice, op. 1, no. 24.

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Filed under Romantic era, Science

Haydn’s skull

After Haydn’s funeral in Vienna his former employer, Prince Esterházy, obtained permission to have the body exhumed and moved to Eisenstadt. The matter apparently then slipped his mind until, 11 years later, a distinguished visitor remarked to him that it was fitting that he possessed the composer’s remains.

Not wishing to contradict his guest’s assumption, Esterházy quickly arranged for the coffin to be brought to Eisenstadt; but when it was opened for identification, the horrified officials discovered a headless body—only Haydn’s wig remained. Inquiries led to the revelation that two students of phrenology had bribed the gravedigger and stolen the composer’s head a few days after the funeral.

Esterházy was furious, and demanded that the skull be returned, but efforts to claim it were thwarted when the wife of its keeper secreted it in her straw mattress and lay down on top of it, feigning illness. When Esterházy offered a bribe, he was given the skull of an old man, and this was placed in Haydn’s coffin. The composer’s skull was not reunited with his other remains until 1954.

This according to “An incongruous postlude” in Haydn: A creative life in music by Karl and Irene Geiringer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968). For more on Haydn’s physiognomy, see this Bibliolore post.

Above, a drawing of the marble tablet—now lost—erected by Haydn’s devoted pupil Sigismund von Neukomm at the composer’s Viennese resting place in 1814 (click to enlarge). The inscription includes Haydn’s favorite quotation from Horace, non omnis moriar, set by Neukomm as a puzzle canon.

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Filed under Classic era, Curiosities, Science

Physiognomy as biography

Due to the widespread popularity of theories first expounded in Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe by Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801), eighteenth- and nineteenth-century intellectuals viewed portraits as presenting clear information on a variety of aspects of the subject’s personality—qualities that their usual approach to biography, which focused only on verifiable facts, omitted. This aspect of portraiture is largely lost on modern music historians.

For example, in 1871 the English cleric and writer Hugh Reginald Haweis provided this interpretation of George Dance’s portrait of Haydn (reproduced above): “The face of Haydn is remarkable quite as much for what it does not as for what it does express. No ambition, no avarice, no impatience, very little excitability, no malice.

“On the other hand, it indicates a placid flow of even health, an exceeding good-humour, combined with a vivacity which seems to say, ‘I must lose my temper sometimes, but I can not lose it for long’; a geniality which it took much to disturb, and a digestion which it took more to impair; a power of work steady and uninterrupted; a healthy devotional feeling; a strong sense of humour; a capacity for the enjoyment of all the world’s good things, without any morbid craving for irregular indulgence; affections warm, but not intense; a presence accepted and beloved; a mind contented almost anywhere, attaching supreme importance to one, and one thing only—the composing of music—and pursuing this object with the steady instinct of one who believed himself to have come into the world for that purpose alone.”

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Filed under Classic era, Iconography