Beethoven Update

The same guys who said there was no lead poisoning to explain Beethoven´s deafness have now reported that there was definitely lead poisoning. And arsenic. And mercury.

When we last left the composer, we found out he was not a Beethoven. We are no clearer now on who he was. But we have a better sense of how heavy metal he was.

The result, said Paul Jannetto, the lab director, was stunning. One of Beethoven’s locks had 258 micrograms of lead per gram of hair and the other had 380 micrograms.
A normal level in hair is less than 4 micrograms of lead per gram. Beethoven’s hair also had arsenic levels 13 times what is normal and mercury levels that were 4 times the normal amount. But the high amounts of lead, in particular, could have caused many of his ailments, Dr. Jannetto said. In their letter to Clinical Chemistry, they said ¨Using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proposed conversion formula of values from hair lead concentration to blood lead concentration, the estimate of Beethoven’s blood lead concentration would have been 69 to 71 µg/dL. Such lead levels are commonly associated with gastrointestinal and renal ailments and decreased hearing but are not considered high enough to be the sole cause of death.¨

No one is suggesting the composer was deliberately poisoned. But, Jerome Nriagu, an expert on lead poisoning in history and a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, said that lead had been used in wines and food in 19th-century Europe, as well as in medicines and ointments.

One likely source of Beethoven’s high levels of lead was cheap wine. Lead, in the form of lead acetate, also called “lead sugar,” has a sweet taste. In Beethoven’s time it was often added to poor quality wine to make it taste better.

Wine was also fermented in kettles soldered with lead, which would leach out as the wine aged, Dr. Nriagu said. And, he added, corks on wine bottles were presoaked in lead salt to improve the seal.

Beethoven drank copious amounts of wine, about a bottle a day, and later in his life even more, believing it was good for his health, and also, Dr. Meredith said, because he had become addicted to it. In the last few days before his death at age 56 in 1827, his friends gave him wine by the spoonful.

I´ve heard the story about the orchestra member turning the deaf Beethoven around to face the cheering audience during the Ninth Symphony. But I had no idea how long it had plagued him.

At age 30, 26 years before his death, Beethoven wrote: “For almost 2 years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf. If I had any other profession, I might be able to cope with my infirmity, but in my profession it is a terrible handicap. And if my enemies, of whom I have a fair number, were to hear about it, what would they say?”

As one whose profession involves testing people for lead exposure every day, I must say I´m impressed. We pay attention, generally, for any serum lead level above 3 µg/dL. Symptoms can start occurring for anything above 10 µg/dL, and chelation therapy (basically intensive detox) is recommended for levels above 45 µg/dL.
I have no idea how good the science extrapolating centuries-old hair lead level to serum lead level is, and what this study begs for is a few dozen age-matched early 1800´s peers to see if EVERYONE back then had 300+ µg/dL of lead in their hair. But the story continues to be fascinating.

2 Replies to “Beethoven Update”

  1. Oh yeah, Beethoven’s hearing loss went way back. Some have tied the anguished “funeral march” movement of the third symphony (which some think of as the big bang of modern music) to the realization that he was growing deaf. Also, the obvious tragedy-to-triumph vibe of the fifth is sometimes seen in the light of his growing success as a composer despite his deafness. I’m skeptical of biographical interpretations of music, but the emotional range of Beethoven’s music (like Mahler’s) lends itself to that sort of thing. But, you know, if the musical ideas and their development and organization weren’t great in a strictly musical sense, no one would be listening any more, so for me at least the deafness is less interesting musically (as in compositional technique) than it is biographically.

    But his growing deafness was certainly relevant to him as a performer. He gained his fame as one of the great pianists of his day (and probably the best improviser of all time). Deafness would be more of a career-killer in the performace realm, hence his concern.

    A very interesting aspect was his demand for ever bigger and louder pianos. The “pianofortes” of his day were puny compared to today’s concert grands. He begged piano makers for larger, louder, more robust pianofortes. He had to be very hard on them just to hear them. At the same time, he wanted more notes and more dynamic range as his piano music became larger in scope. He got more notes, but pianos with the huge sonority his music needed came decades after his death. He was writing for an instrument of the future. Did his deafness make him fight harder against the limitations of his pianos? Did it make him look past the shortcomings of contemporary instruments? If he could fully hear his works on his pianofortes, would he have scaled them down? Hard to tell. He was naturally one to push the envelope, but maybe all that requisite banging made him think in grander terms.

    I would be way out of my league talking about lead levels and their effects, but it seems to me that he would not have more lead in his system than most Viennese. I’d think his daily wine intake would be about average for that time and place.

  2. I agree. No one would bother with the overwrought psychoanalysis in the absence of stupendous music. Or with the medical overdiagnosis. Some have pointed out that lupus might tie together his lifelong symptoms (gastrointestinal afflictions, hearing, facial flushing, etc). Fair enough. He can´t be the only one of his time with an affinity for cheap wine. You´d think half the population was lead poisoned.

    Beethoven´s late stage composing process sounds incredible. From an English visitor watching him in 1820:

    When playing very PIANO, he often does not bring out a single note. He hears it himself in the ¨mind´s ear.¨ While his eye, and the almost imperceptible motions of his fingers, show that he is following the strain in its own soul through his dying degradations, the instrument is actually as dumb as the musician is deaf.

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