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Beethoven’s Death

What killed Beethoven? Many experts and pseudo experts have attempted to answer that question. Some even suggest that the question should actually be “who killed Beethoven.” The only certainty about this mystery is that we will never know the answer with certainty. Posthumous investigations of a death that occurred almost two hundred years ago are wrought with difficulty but still, they can lead to some interesting speculations. In this case about lead poisoning. The most tragic chapter of the great composer’s medical history was his progressing deafness, but that was not his only ailment. From a young age Beethoven complained of abdominal pain, headaches and diarrhea, and as the years passed his days were plagued with fits of aggressive behaviour, impulsiveness and depression. When he passed away at age 56 an autopsy was performed revealing liver and kidney disease. It was samples of hair and bones taken at the time that would eventually become the focal point for the numerous discussions and articles about Beethoven’s death. In 2005, analysis of the hair samples and skull fragments indicated a higher than normal level of lead which generated a plethora of commentaries because many of the composer’s symptoms matched those seen in cases of lead poisoning. Widespread speculation began about how the composer may have been exposed to the metal.

Could it have been lead in waters from the spa he frequented to alleviate his ailments? Drinking from lead goblets? Could it have been the wine he was so fond of? Or was the culprit a lead-laced poultice his physician used after withdrawing excessive fluid from Beethoven’s abdomen? That’s the theory forwarded by Viennese pathologist Dr. Christian Reiter. He claims that Beethoven was primed for a calamity because he already had high levels of lead from his favourite wine and the surgical procedure put him over the top. There is, however, no evidence that the doctor used any type of lead-based product on the wound and the physician’s own account describes that the puncture wounds were being kept “meticulously dry in order to avoid infection.” But the wine story has a ring of truth to it. Beethoven loved wine, but was certainly not an alcoholic. His last words on his deathbed supposedly were “pity, pity, too late” after being told of a gift of twelve bottles of wine. And apparently his preference was for some cheap Hungarian wine, probably because of its sweetness.

At the time many such wines were adulterated with lead acetate to improve the flavor. Beethoven’s friends spoke of him drinking a bottle of wine with each meal and his love of wine was well expressed in his classic quote. “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, it is wine of a new procreation, and I am Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for men and makes them drunk with spirit.” But it was his imbibing in real spirit that may have done him in. And I say “may,” because the most recent analysis of bone fragments did not show an unusually high level of lead. And so it goes. The controversy continues. But there is no controversy about the fact that in spite of his daily miseries, Beethoven produced spectacular music.

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