That Jealous Demon, My Wretched Health

Noble, Jonathan

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy
  • Date of entry: Feb-19-2019
  • Last revised: Feb-19-2019


In That Jealous Demon, My Wretched Health (subtitled “Disease, Death and Composers”), Jonathan Noble, a retired surgeon gives us the medical and psychiatric history of seventy classical music composers. Chapters are organized by illness, ranging from cancer to syphilis to alcoholism.  Famous composers such as Schubert and Shostakovich predominate, but many lesser-known composers, ranging from Jeremiah Clarke to Gerald Finzi, are also included.  

Mozart is one composer whose cause of death has long been the subject of controversy, and the various theories are comprehensively explored here. However, the author goes even further, developing a detailed medical case study of the composer beginning in childhood.  He examines the toll that Leopold Mozart’s exploitation took on his prodigy son’s constitution, what Wolfgang’s appearance in the surviving portraits has to say about his general health, and even whether he may have had Tourette’s Syndrome. Finally, the author ties all of this together, methodically refuting or confirming each diagnosis, offering far deeper analysis than one would expect to find in a standard biography.  

Another example, the case of Tchaikovsky, reads like a veritable whodunit. The composer’s activities during the last two months of his life are scrutinized, with the likely causes of death systematically disproven or confirmed.  

A list of composers who suffered accidental or violent deaths provides some surprises. You will learn that Lully accidentally stabbed himself with his conductor’s baton, and that Alkan may have been crushed to death by a bookcase upon pulling his Talmud off a shelf.


The chapters on composers are extremely thorough and rather straightforward.  In the last chapter, fittingly entitled “Epilogue and Coda,” Noble deftly ties all of this material together. Time and time again we see how composers have been misdiagnosed and how eventually, misinformation becomes taken as gospel. In the case of those who have been incorrectly labeled alcoholics, the author believes their reputations have suffered. In light of this, he advises that “no musicologist should write regarding a musician’s health without consulting appropriate medical experts…” (p. 352). 

Noble goes on to tackle the question of whether these composers would have survived their illnesses with modern medical treatment, deducing that “over half of my cohort of seventy would.” (p. 356) He goes on to speculate about what might have happened if they had lived longer lives.  Would Mozart have gone on to write masterpiece after masterpiece, or might there be just “a finite package of creative energy and output in each composer” (p. 357)?   

In the final analysis, Noble’s affection for his subjects is attested to by his admiration at how they “shook off the misery from sometimes unbearable circumstances and ill health” (p. 361) to create beautiful music. That Jealous Demon, My Wretched Health is a homage from a doctor and music lover to his imaginary patients, and a labor of love on the part of the author.               


The Boydell Press

Place Published

Woodbridge, UK



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