Beethoven’s Bones, and Teeth, and…Hair
Was Ludwig von Beethoven killed? This story has all the makings of another classical composer’s controversial death: the reported demise of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the hand of his rival, Antonio Salieri. Enter a novel, a play, a movie perhaps? (You did see Amadeus, did you not?)
I often notice coincidence and serendipity in my life. As I was reading the book Beethoven’s Hair, something I’d been meaning to do for years, the Associated Press released a story describing a new theory of how Beethoven died. Beethoven’s Hair describes the remarkable journey of a lock of hair, cut from his head by a friend and fellow composer at Beethoven’s deathbed in Vienna. The hair travels through Europe, to San Jose, California, where most of it resides today. It had been some years since hair and bone fragments had been analyzed, and revealed that Beethoven’s body contained large amounts of lead residue. The book describes the DNA analyses and tests run on the fragments, but just recently, as of August 28 of this year, there is new CSI-like research indicating the great composer may have been deliberately, steadily, poisoned.
One of the things I most enjoyed about Beethoven’s Hair was the interweaving of the story of the composer’s life, including the great friendships he enjoyed with prominent European composers of classical music’s golden age, with the mystery and suspense surrounding the journey of “the hair” and the cultural conditions marking its movement.
Beethoven is of course best known for his symphonies–particularly the fifth (“da da da dum….”) and the ninth (“Ode to Joy”). I love those, too, but I’m utterly transfixed by his late string quartets. If you’re wired the way I am, you need only listen to a quartet for 15 minutes or so to have a transcendent spiritual experience.
In the lovely book Beethoven: His Spiritual Development, by J.W.N. Sullivan, the author proclaims: “The states of consciousness with which he was concerned contained more and more elusive elements, and came from greater depth. The task of creation necessitated an unequalled degree of absorption and withdrawal.” Sullivan concludes, rather sadly, with these words: “…Beethoven was a man who experienced all that we can experience, who suffered all that we can suffer. If, in the end, he reaches a state ‘above the battle’ we also know that no man ever knew more bitterly what the battle is.”
The romantic poignancy portrayed in many biographies and the movie Immortal Beloved has always played a part in my appreciation for the composer’s works. His ill health, and ironic deafness have added pathos and intrigue to his story. To think that, of all people to go deaf, it would be Beethoven, for whom music was everything–the portal to spiritual connection! And yet, he continued to compose his amazing late works in spite of the fact he could not “hear” them–at least with his physical ears. We can believe he did hear them though, with his whole being.
Over the years Beethoven’s intense health issues were mostly considered a tragic twist of fate. Then, after several exhumations, autopsies, examinations, and analyses, it was revealed he had serious liver disease, and finally, lead poisoning. This is thought to have led not only to his great physical suffering, but could also have contributed to his deafness. Now, in the recent article, we learn he may have been deliberately, although not intentionally, poisoned!
“Beethoven suffered from cirrhosis of the liver as well as edemas of the abdomen. Reiter says that in attempts to ease the composer’s suffering, [his Doctor] Wawruch repeatedly punctured the abdominal cavity – and then sealed the wound with a lead-laced poultice…. how was he to know that Beethoven already had a serious liver ailment?”
The article goes on to say that every time Beethoven had a treatment from Dr. Wawruch, his lead levels spiked. Science, music, drama and mysticism have now mixed themselves into the tale of this remarkable man. He still speaks to us through these new studies, and always through the Music. His death was as dramatic as his life, and his music reflects all that he was. I’m left with transcendent joy and profound gratitude that this soul came to share his journey with us.