Tag Archives: best chamber music

What did Beethoven die from?


Ludvig van Beethoven(1780- 1827), one of my favorite composers, wrote some of the most sublime music in the western tradition. His inspiring music is still very popular among classical music enthusiasts, especially his symphonies. I often listen to his music on my long runs.

At the same time that he was producing one masterpiece after another, he was in extremely poor health. He famously started going deaf(likely due to Paget’s disease) in his late 20s, only to become completely deaf by his early 40s. Besides this, he had serious digestive problems, abdominal pain, chronic bronchitis, and depression. His deafness also apparently drove him to alcoholism.

And yet even after he became deaf, instead of just giving up he continued to compose. Isolated from the outside world due to deafness and living inside his head, he lived only for his music, he became one with his music. He wrote some of his most powerful music while deaf. Besides his symphonies, one of my favorite pieces from his last years is his string quartet #14(op. 131). I highly recommend it, unless you have a problem with sad music(it is mostly the opening which is sad).

To get back on topic of what did Beethoven die from, there have been several different theories advanced over the years by experts. It is difficult to attribute his death to one cause since he suffered from many different diseases, however, lead poisoning(his temper, mood disorder, and digestive disorders suggest lead poisoning) was one of the most popular theories for a long time, along with syphilis.

By focusing the most powerful X-ray beam in the Western Hemisphere on six of Ludwig van Beethoven’s hairs and a few pieces of his skull, scientists have gathered what they say is conclusive evidence that the famous composer died of lead poisoning.
“There’s no doubt in my mind . . . he was a victim of lead poisoning,” said Bill Walsh, an expert in forensic analysis and chief scientist at Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Warrenville, Ill., who led the study with energy department researcher Ken Kemner.
Well, there we have it, Beethoven died from lead poisoning. Oh no, wait a minute, it looks like some experts disagree:

Five years ago tests on different strands of Beethoven’s hair and a tiny piece of his skull again pointed to lead. That, Beethoven scholars said, could have explained his infamous temper and his occasional memory slips. Some figured he had drunk too much cheap wine that was sweetened — in the custom of the 19th century — with lead to hide the bitterness.

But last week a lead-poisoning expert at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York tested the same piece of Beethoven’s skull that had been examined in 2005, along with another, larger, fragment. The researcher, Dr. Andrew C. Todd, said that over all he had found no more lead than in the average person’s skull.

It looks like we may never know for sure what lead to his death. It’s incredible how he was able to produce so much incredible, lofty music in such a wretched state. Or is intense suffering a requirement for creativity? If the medical treatments we have today for whatever Beethoven suffered from were available in Beethoven’s time, and he was cured and his pain taken away, would his music have been less profound and timeless? Do sickly or mentally disturbed individuals make better artists?