Many people know Beethoven for his incredible music and the suffering he went through much of his adult life because of illness. However, it is not clear what illnesses Beethoven suffered from and what really killed him in 1827. As Anselm Huttenbrenner asserts, with a clap of thunder and a flash of lightening, Beethoven gazed at the heavens while raising his fist as if to say “I defy you” and died (Yim 1). It goes without saying that there are many myths that surround the death of this great musician. This paper highlights possible causes of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s death considering that he suffered from a series of diseases before his death at the age of 56 .
Who was Ludwig Van Beethoven?
Ludwig von Beethoven was born in Bonn, which was the capital to Electorate of Cologne. His exact date of birth is unclear. Nevertheless, available records indicate that his baptismal day was 17th December 1770. Based on the belief that people of Electorate of Cologne had the tradition of baptizing their children a year after their birth, scholars are satisfied that Ludwig may be born on 17th day of December 1769 (Fischer 67). His parents were Johann von Beethoven and Maria Keverich. His family had the custom of playing music right from his grandfather, the famous Ludewijk Von Beethoven. His grandfather performed classical music at the court. During those days, musicians were only but commoners. His father, too, played music before young Ludwig took over his ancestral office. Ludwig’s first music teacher was his father. According to the article “Investigating Beethoven’s Death,” Ludwig’s father was very strict during those trainings to the extent that Ludwig cried before performing every time. He also had other teachers such as Gilles Van den Eeden, who was a court organist. He also had a chance to learn to play the violin and flute from his friend -Anton Reicha. Out of his six siblings, only two survived childhood mortality. These were Johann and Carl.
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Ludwig was a unique and legendary classical and romantic musician who traded between the late 18th and early 19th century. His first public performance was when he was seven years in 1778. This pleased many people of high social class. Due to the rapid changes in embracing the arts by young generation, Martin (76) argues that Empress Maria Theresa felt that it was important to incorporate education to arts. This move motivated young Beethoven to compose music. He joined some enlightened groups such as the order of illuminati and the freemasonry, which inspired his music. Nonetheless, his career experienced slow growth until he moved to Vienna in 1792. In Vienna, he grew to perform as a thrilling virtuoso pianist. In his musical career, Beethoven came up with dozens of piano sonatas, several string quartets, and a few symphonies, which were all original. According to Davies (222), his music was unique and designated for powerful characters, with depth of emotions and high skills in manipulation of the tone. This was possibly to suit the demands and interests of the members of high social class. Moreover, his patronage was from members of the high social status. Until his death, he had been known as a legendary deaf musician.
Theories Surrounding Beethoven’s Death
Martin (123) is of the opinion that despite his successes, Beethoven’s life was full of controversies and challenges. He encountered a series of challenges which threatened his career and social life. After a doctor conducted a DNA scan on Beethoven’s hair which was snipped by the musician Ferdinand Hiller for keepsake purposes, a heated debate came up on causes of his death. Some feel he died from failure of the liver, others think it was syphilis, others assume that his physician Dr. Wawruch poisoned him. These are only but tentative guesses. This paper concurs with some conclusions and agrees with the most reasonable of them.
Davies (128) argues that Beethoven’s troubles began in 1796, when he began hearing a tinnitus sound in his ears. This condition made him hear some ringing in his ears that hindered his ability to hear higher levels of sounds like music. At that time, he could hear and respond to conversations. There is no clear explanation to the cause of this condition. Some scholars attribute this condition to his habit of immersing his head in water in order to stay awake. Ears are very sensitive organs on a human body when in contact with any substance that may cause infections. During Beethoven’s time, they used lead to treat water. This meant that the water was contaminated. When he immersed his head in water, internal part of his ears contacted with the contaminated water, which may have led to ear infection and partial deafness. Moreover, his exposure to high levels of sound also played a major role in his deafness. He played music of high tonal manipulation. This level of noise pollution worsened his condition and possibly became the cause of his complete deafness (Davies 76).
This deafness condition affected Beethoven’s social and professional life in many ways. For instance, once in his life, he attempted suicide after inability to detect sounds. Music was his living. It was from music that he took care of his expenses at home. Therefore, inability to hear a sound made him dream of killing himself because he had a sense of loss of life. In one of the letters to his brothers, he mentioned this fact . Deafness also affected his patterns of conversations. For instance, he was unable to listen to those who spoke to him. Therefore, he had to come up with conversation books where friends and relatives could communicate to him. Throughout his lifetime, he came up with 400 conversation books (Fischer 144). The other effect of this illness was emotional breakdown. For instance, when performing at a concert, he cried after he failed to hear his audience who were applauding him. The condition also affected his performance and quality of his music. For instance, when he was performing his song, Is It not Beautiful, he played very loud notes on his piano until those beside him had to complain to him. Thus, the condition made him unable to listen to his compositions. This stressed him further.
The other condition that posed a challenge to Beethoven was depression. The series of sad events that unfolded in Beethoven’s life were enough to break his heart and cause him much depression (Fischer 45). While his deafness was a major cause, Beethoven also faced great depression after the loss of his mother to illness and the loss of his father to alcohol. He was in charge of his siblings. His brother Johann opted to marry a woman who already had a child out of wedlock. Apart from that, Ludwig also suffered when his brother Carl, who had been sick, eventually died from his illness. Beethoven’s brother left a son named Karl. Beethoven felt that it was necessary to have full custody of Karl. He went to courts to challenge this and he miserably failed. His several appeals were also unsuccessful. This stressed him further. At one point, Karl attempted suicide due to this condition and his efforts bore fruits, because it reconciled his mother and Beethoven (Fischer 89). However, during that period, Beethoven developed a strong liking for wine to ease his pressure and depression. The depression was destructive to his career because it reduced the quality of his output and compelled him to consumption of wine. Therefore, it changed his lifestyle. During that period, he also felt as a social misfit. This made him withdraw from social life and alter his appearance.
Stanley (165) argues that apart from that he also developed the habit of consuming high levels of alcohol. Since he started pursuing the custody of his nephew, Beethoven developed a very strong taste for sweet wine. Excessive consumption of this wine was dangerous to his health. Apart from distorting his judgment and appearance, he developed liver cirrhosis. This disease was the final blow to his career. It incapacitated him and rendered him immobile during the last minutes of his life. According to his physician, Dr. Wawruch, Beethoven died from liver cirrhosis. According to some scholars, he showed some symptoms of cirrhosis like the jaundice, inflammatory fever, diarrhea, and vomiting. Since the age of 25, Beethoven suffered from this condition.
Based on testimonies from one of his conversation books, he also noted that he had chronic abdominal pain and his doctor diagnosed him of syphilis. This may have emanated from his frequent sexual encounters with one of his many concubines including Josephine Brunswick, Therese Malfati, Julie Giucciardi, and Antoine Brentano (Lockwood 78). He never had a real chance of marrying either of them. Many factors had impact on his relationships. For instance, he really loved Josephine and he wished to marry her. Nonetheless, Josephine loved a man from aristocratic family. Upon the death of her husband, they had a chance of falling in love again but the husband’s family threatened to withdraw their support for Josephine’s children if she went on falling in love with a commoner like Beethoven. Consequently, Beethoven never had the chance of keeping the love of his life and he never married. Generally, he spent almost half of his life in pain, depression, and illness. This was probably the absolute reason why he consumed excessive wine (Lockwood 98).
According to his physician’s autopsy report, Beethoven died of liver failure. Until his death, Dr. Wawruch was treating this condition (Stanley 154). New findings by scholars and researchers like Christian Reiter disagree with his physician’s conclusion that he died due to liver failure. Reiter accuses Wawruch in poisoning Beethoven. It is true that Beethoven suffered from liver failure, syphilis, depression and some other diseases. Nevertheless, there is not enough evidence supporting this assertion as compared to those supporting lead poisoning.
Beethoven suffered from lead poisoning and maybe it was the reason why he died. From Reiter’s toxicological analysis of Beethoven’s hair, the hair had 60ppm of Lead (Beethoven 87). This was the double amount of Lead normal for a human body. Study of his bones also showed the presence of high level of lead. Therefore, there is enough evidence to term the situation as poisoning. Christian feels that Andreas Wawruch was responsible for this death because he used Lead salts to cure Beethoven’s liver diseases and dry up water from his wounds. He adds that the medicine used was wrong because it overworked the already ailing and weak liver leading to the miserable death of Beethoven. Yim (1) asserts that though Wawruch may have been responsible for this death, his conscience was clear because those were the accepted standards of medicine practice. I concur with Reiter. Liver failure, depression and syphilis or any other disease is not the immediate cause of the death. These diseases may have weakened his body but would not have caused death directly. Beethoven died from lead poisoning. His body had high levels of lead that he may have consumed from his environment. Moreover, the medication that he received may have caused his death.
Beethoven had a strong taste for sweet Mosel wine, which may have been another cause of his death. He consumed lead poisoned wine, which endangered his life. In addition to medication, the wine he consumed accounts for the high levels of lead in his body. Those days, brewers used lead to sweeten and refresh cheap wine. This practice was illegal by then but crooks were all over. In fact, this cheap wine poisoned Beethoven. Beethoven was a commoner and obviously could not afford expensive wine (Stanley 87). Therefore, Beethoven consumed this cheap wine and it was lead poisoned when the brewers used to refresh and sweeten it. Moreover, the lead poisoning may have come from the utensils or water. During Beethoven’s time, they used lead to treat and transport water. They also used lead made utensils to serve food. Thus, lead poisoned water and the food that Beethoven consumed were poisonous for him. The other factor accounting for the high levels of lead in his body may have been the treatment he received when he suffered from syphilis. From one of the conversation books, his doctor used lead to cure this sexually transmitted disease (Beethoven 144). Therefore, this treatment accounts for high levels of lead in his body.
Someone may question how is doctor Wawruch responsible for his death then if he had exposure to very many forms of lead poisoning? As seen, many factors may have contributed to this poisoning, but Dr. Wawruch bears the greatest responsibility for Beethoven’s death (Clive 67). Just like all other diseases, the poisoning weakened the body. Despite the fact that doctor Wawruch might have contributed to the death of Beethoven to some extent, I believe he did it out of professional obligation and not with the intent of murder. After the lung problem developed, Dr. Wawruch punctured Beethoven’s body without anesthesia and then used lead salts to dry up the wound and do away with the water. This was his intent to heal his patient. However, Beethoven’s body defied the medication due to excessive poisoning by the same substance (Clive 145). With others it worked, but not with Beethoven. Lead poisoned his body excessively. Consequently, instead of healing the patient, the treatment repelled and weakened the unfit liver causing Beethoven’s death. On a straw mattress, the legendary Beethoven died on the 26th day of March 1827.
Beethoven was a son, a brother, and a custodian. He was not only the custodian to his nephew but also to morality in his society. Yet, challenges overcame him, which granted depression an upper arm over his life. He remains one of the few legendary classical musicians who mastered their art but got defeated by some of their affairs. Systems in the society failed him to the extent of claiming his life. Born out of wedlock to loss of parents and siblings, denial of custody and rejection of love because he was not aristocratic is a single unfair pack of gift to have in life. The society denied him the chance to be equal and so away his life went. From the above findings, illness never claimed his life. His own doctor took it away while he was hoping to revive it. That was how legendary Beethoven died lead poisoned.