Wednesday, 3 December 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 9 Eroica (2)

In 1994 Sotheby's, the London auction house, offered for sale a most unusual item: a lock of Beethoven's hair. Its provenance, history and authenticity were well attested. It had been snipped the day after Beethoven's death in 1827 by a 15-year-old lad called Ferdinand Hiller. Hiller, who grew up to become enormously fat, a Christianized Jew and a sort of director of music in that very Cologne whose noxious dust I had been so glad to shake from my sandals, had the hair set in a locket, which eventually he passed on his son. The subsequent history is told in Russell Martin's Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved.

The lock of hair, mostly brown with a few strands of grey, was bought by two Americans. A small sample was sent for forensic analysis under the most stringent conditions. The results were extraordinary and utterly unexpected.

Did Beethoven have syphilis? Beethoven commentators have often concluded that syphilis was the underlying cause of his poor health and relatively early death. Before the development of Salvarsan in 1908 and the later discovery of pencillin, the usual treatment for syphilis involved various compounds of mercury. Post-treatment residual mercury lodges in several places in the body including the hair. The Beethoven sample showed no trace whatever of residual mercury.

Throughout his adult life Beethoven complained bitterly of pain, particularly towards the end and during his final illness. In 1827 as today, the most effective pain-killers were opiates, specifically laudanum, a mixture of opium with alcohol, often brandy. Despite laudanum being readily available, there is no record of his doctors, Wawruch and Malfatti, prescribing anything other than iced alcoholic punch. There was no trace, either, of any residual opiate in Beethoven's hair. The conclusion is that he refused pain-killers. Indeed, Wawruch produced a post-mortem report some weeks after Beethoven's death stating that he refused any kind of medication other than the iced punch.

The surprise residual element was lead. The concentration of lead in Beethoven's hair was 42 times greater than that found in control hairs, a vast difference. The conclusion was that by the time of his death and very probably for many years before Beethoven had suffered very severely from lead poisoning. Lead is very toxic. Lead poisoning, also known as saturnism or plumbism, leads to all but one of the symptoms Beethoven complained of. While there have been cases of lead poisoning affecting hearing, the possible link between lead poisoning and Beethoven's deafness remains to be conclusively established.

Where had this concentration of lead in Beethoven's hair come from? It's unlikely to have come from water-pipes, because Beethoven moved from one lodging to another so frequently. His household and kitchen effects, catalogued after his death, included very little containing lead, certainly not in quantities to account for the massive levels of lead Beethoven ingested. The answer probably lies in the amount of wine he drank. In the later years of his life, at least, it was normal for him to drink an entire bottle in the course of a meal. While he was never reported to be drunk, his thirst was notorious among his friends. The effect on his liver was probably no less disastrous than the amount of lead he consumed.

He seems to have been victim of a practice prevalent at times thoughout wine-producing Europe. In years and in areas deprived of enough sunshine to develop the sugar content in the grapes, it was the practice to sweeten the vintage to make it more acceptable to the taste. Before the widespread introduction of cane sugar from the West Indies, there were only two methods of sweetening otherwise bitter foodstuffs. The addition of honey was one, and the other, by which wine kept its characteristic taste and ability to complement certain dishes, and also to keep longer, was to add a bizarre compound: lead oxide (PbO), or litharge, treated with acetic acid, most commonly found in vinegar. The resulting lead acetate or diacetate (Pb(C2H3O2)2), to be exact), is whitish and crystalline, has a sweetish taste - it's sometimes called sugar of lead - and is very toxic.

As far as I know no research has been done into the correlation of sunshine and corresponding strength of natural and artificial sugars in Austrian and Rhenish vintages (Beethoven was particularly fond of wines from his native Rhineland) in Beethoven's wine-drinking lifetime, and it's difficult to imagine how this might be done. We're left with the conjecture that Beethoven did not contract syphilis; that he systematically but unwittingly poisoned himself with lead; that without a tough constitution he might have died earlier; and that lead poisoning may have contributed to or even caused his deafness.

Unconnected with Beethoven's hair, similar tests were carried out in the late 1990s on samples of his bone tissue. If I reveal where they came from, and in what circumstances, it would spoil the end of this account. But the results and the conclusions to be drawn were exactly the same: no mercury, so little likelihood of syphilis; no opiates, so a tendency to put up with pain, or to mask it in some other way; but massive concentrations of lead.

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