Strokes in Great Composers

Johann Sebastian Bach with his Sons, 1730
Johann Sebastian Bach with his sons, 1730. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images

Stroke is one of the most common of all neurological diseases. This was true historically as well as now. Looking at musical history, nearly a quarter of those considered “great composers” suffered diseases of the blood vessels. This includes 20 great Baroque composers, including Heinrich Schutz, Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Friedrich Handel, and Christoph Willibald Gluck.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach came from a large and musical family.

Born in 1685, he was educated in basic musical and theological science. He went on to work as a court musician for the Duke of Cothens and later went to Leipzig as a musical director. Despite his success and talent, in his time he was better known as an organist than a composer, and it took almost a hundred years from his death for his music to be rediscovered by Felix Mendelssohn.

During the last two years of his life, Bach’s vision rapidly deteriorated. By the end of 1749, he couldn’t write anymore and had to dictate any notes. He underwent unsuccessful operations and spent his days in a depressed in a dark room. In addition, people have speculated based on his temperament and portraits that he had vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes, both of which predispose towards stroke. Some have theorized from a possible facial asymmetry in a painting that he may have had early strokes.

In July of 1750, he suffered a stroke that proved fatal.

Georg Friedrich Handel

Bach’s story parallels that of another composer,​ Georg Friedrich Handel. Both were born in the same year, 1685. Handel became blind at the same age as Bach, and underwent the same procedure by the same “specialist,” a huckster named John Taylor.

Unlike Bach, Handel was not much of a family man and never married. He enjoyed frequent and excessive alcohol. Later portraits suggest obesity and perhaps gout. He was known for being very moody. Episodes of cheerfulness were interrupted by periods of depression, which has led some to suggest he suffered a bipolar disorder. As mentioned, he went blind nearing the end of his life and underwent unsuccessful eye operations. In addition, he had a series of possible strokes. The first involved right arm paralysis and confusion in 1737. He recovered from this but again had paralysis and speech impairment in 1743.

Anton Dvorak

Dvorak is the best known Cech composer of all time, known for rich and beautiful melodies. Educated in Prague, he went on to play in Prague orchestras. At age 37 he gained the attention of Johannes Brahms, who recommended him to his publishers, and Dvorak became a widely celebrated artist. He later moved to New York City, where people began to note periodic aggressiveness, nervousness, and a desire for isolation. He later returned to become Director of the Prague Academy of Music. He died suddenly in 1904 of a stroke.

Sergej Sergeyevich Prokofiev

Prokofiev was a brilliant pianist, composer, and chess player.

He wrote his first piano piece at the age of 5 and was playing Beethoven sonatas by age 9. As a young man, his works were considered innovative and modern. Such a progressive mind struggled in Stalinist Russia. His wife was arrested and sent to a labor camp, and he himself was sometimes obstructed by governmental censure. In 1945 he had an acute period of dizziness and fell down a flight of stairs. He was diagnosed with hypertension shortly thereafter and was generally slow to recover. He had ongoing headache and dizziness, which progressed to be almost constant during the last weeks of his life.

He still tried to keep working, sometimes on several compositions at once. He staggered into his parlor in 1953, complaining of severe headache and dizziness, and apologized for upsetting his wife. Within an hour, he deteriorated further, until finally, he became comatose. Attending doctors suggested he died of a hemorrhagic stroke likely worsened by malignant hypertension.

Closing Thoughts

These composers all had wide talent, success, importance, and ultimately, stroke. Now as then, stroke remains one of the most common and preventable of neurological illnesses.


Tomislav Breitenfeld MD PhD, University of Zagreb, Croatia. Vascular Disease in Great Composers. American Academy of Neurology Annual Conference, 2015.

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