Composers’ deaths left many questions unanswered

beethovenBoth Beethoven and Mozart were spectacular talents whose music will live forever. That’s a fact. But when it comes to the composers’ deaths, facts give way to theories, some reasonable, some outlandish. Posthumous investigation in face of a lack of sufficient evidence amounts to no more than conjecture, so why even bother? Because the theories do offer an opportunity to discuss some interesting science.

Ludwig van Beethoven died in 1827. That much we know. But what killed him? Many experts and pseudo-experts have attempted to answer that question. Some even suggest that the question should actually be: “Who killed him?” Beethoven’s progressive deafness is well documented, but that was not his only ailment. From a young age the composer 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. What could have caused these problems?

Samples of Beethoven’s hair and bones would eventually become the focal point for the numerous discussions and articles about his death. In 2005, analysis of the hair samples and skull fragments indicated a higher-than-normal level of lead, generating widespread speculation about the possibility of lead poisoning.

Could it have been caused by lead in waters from the spa he frequented to alleviate his ailments? Perhaps from 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 accumulated high levels of lead from his favourite wine, and the surgical procedure put him over the top.

Although thin sheets of lead were used at the time to keep poultices in place, there is no evidence that the doctor used this technique. In fact, his 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 was not an alcoholic, but he did love wine. 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 flavour. 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 and hair using more sophisticated equipment does not show an unusually high level of lead. So the possibility of lead poisoning is interesting, but doesn’t hold a whole lot of weight.

The prospect of poisoning has also been raised in the death of Mozart at age 35 after a brief illness. In 1791, the most famous child prodigy of all time suddenly developed a high fever, sweats, nausea, diarrhea, a rash and severe pain in the hands and legs. His body swelled terribly and emitted a horrific odour. Russian writer Alexsandr Pushkin’s play, Mozart and Salieri, written in 1830, raised the possibility that Salieri, who was court composer at the time, poisoned his young rival in a fit of jealousy. Another candidate for poisoning Mozart, who was known to be a notorious womanizer, was Franz Hofdemel, whose wife had apparently reciprocated the composer’s amorous advances. And as one might expect, with prejudices running wild at the time, blame even fell on the Freemasons, Catholics and of course the Jews.

Arsenic was the most common poison at the time, but Mozart’s symptoms do not match those of arsenic poisoning, with burning of the throat and difficulty in swallowing being notably absent. Neither do the symptoms mesh with mercury poisoning, which has also been suggested. The supposition is that Mozart suffered from syphilis, and accidentally self-administered a toxic dose of mercury chloride, a common medication at the time.

There is no shortage of conjecture about Mozart’s illness and death. Kidney disease brought on by a streptococcal infection is a realistic possibility, especially when considering that there was a minor epidemic of swelling-related deaths in Vienna at the time. Rheumatic fever, infective endocarditis, vitamin D deficiency, and a rare autoimmune disease called Henoch-Schonlein Purpura have also been suggested, as well as the composer’s love of pork chops. Trichinosis, caused by a parasitic worm that infects pork, can cause symptoms similar to what Mozart experienced, although the progress of the disease would be different from what observers described.

In the absence of a body, one of course can do no more than make guesses. And there is no body. But there may be a skull. According to custom at the time, Mozart’s body was sewn in a linen sack, placed in a communal grave and doused with quicklime to hasten decomposition. This allowed the graves to be opened years later and be used again after dispersal of the remains. It seems the worker who opened the grave was the same as had buried Mozart and remembered where the head had been. He snitched the skull, which is now on display at the “Mozarteum” in Salzberg.

French anthropologist Pierre-Françoise Puech claims that the skull is indeed Mozart’s, basing his opinion on a developmental abnormality in the skull that leads to a forehead just as depicted in paintings of the composer. Furthermore, the skull shows a fracture that Puech says was caused by Mozart falling and led to a brain contusion that caused his death. His conclusion has been disputed both on grounds of Mozart’s symptoms and the fact that Mozart’s physician had recorded that his patient had only seven teeth. The skull has eleven. Mozart was apparently a lot better at writing music than brushing teeth.


Joe Schwarcz

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.