Beethoven poisoning...

j d worthington

Well-Known Member
May 9, 2006
Now, I've heard this batted back and forth for years, and I thought it had long been a settled question. However, perhaps I was mistaken....

Pathologist: Doctor killed Beethoven - Yahoo! News

Titled: "Pathologist: Doctor killed Beethoven", from AP, by George Jahn, datelined Tue., Aug. 28, 2007.

Though I'd always heard it was the lead from some of the plates, cups, etc., used....
Interesting report. Thanks, J.D.! I'm not quite sure what to believe, same with Mozart's death - he's got a strand of golden hair that shines more light than any hair on a living head being displayed in his birth house, which must've been examed hundreds of times, but the cause of his death still can't be confirmed.
Now that Herr Doktor Wawruch's journal has surfaced, I find it quite plausable that he helped speed our poor Ludwig on his journey to the next life.

Having read a book on the subject entitled, Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved by Russell Martin (a book best read for its amazing story and the presentation of scientific findings rather than its deathless prose style) and examined the evidence it produced, I can say that the toxicological reports prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Beethoven's death was mostly due to severe lead poisoning.

Now as far as that article goes, the title is misleading insofar as Beethoven was already exhibiting symptoms of severe lead poisoning by the time he received the ministrations of Wawruch. The good Doktor only aggravated the situation (as physicians have been known to do across history).

There are several primary ways in which he could have ingested lead: the dinnerware he ate off of contained high concentrations of lead in its glaze and a contemporary practice of reducing the bitterness of new vintages called "plumbing" (placing lead weights in the barrels) and - although made illegal by civil authorities of the time - was very common. Remember that Beethoven was an avid wine drinker. And let's not forget that his autopsy was a botched affair - less like the work of scientists and more like the work of a couple boys gutting a cat out of curiousity. To further confuse the situation, I believe that those original autopsy reports have been lost in the intervening years.

Poor Beethoven!
Thanks JD, interesting reading. Obviously Beethoven was already an unwell person but his doctor didn't help matters, as the article says though you can't blame the doctor, he was carrying out what must have been common medical practice at the time.

I am sure that his excessive drinking would not have helped his liver either!

I guess we must be thankful that medicine though has advanced since then.
I'd like to take this opportunity recommending the film Copying Beethoven. Copying Beethoven: DVD: Diane Kruger,Ralph Riach,Matyelok Gibbs,Ed Harris,Bill Stewart,Angus Barnett,Viktoria Dihen,Phyllida Law,Matthew Goode,Gábor Bohus,Joe Anderson (VI),David Kennedy,Nicholas Jones,Karl Johnson (II),László Áron,George

Amazon editorial reviews:

A passionate, powerful drama based loosely on the final months of Ludwig van Beethoven's life, Copying Beethoven finds the maestro a haunted man, composing the most revolutionary yet unappreciated work of his lifetime; largely deaf... Ed Harris' Beethoven is wracked by pain but not overwhelmed by it; he looks like a man who understands his responsibility to nature too well to merely disintegrate... Director Agnieszka Holland (Olivier, Olivier) oversees a handsome, alternately tender and brutal drama, with several thrilling moments, including the stunned look of audience members hearing the world premiere of the glorious 9th Symphony. --Tom Keogh
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Now this is a surprise! Ed Harris as Beethoven? I checked out that Amazon link Lily and was very much pleased at the work done on Harris to transform him into the role. The last actor who looked and fit the role like a glove was Albert Finney in Beethoven's Nephew.

However, after reading the reviews, I am struck by a discordant note: The introduction of a fictitious character named Anna Holtz into the story. Apparently the screenwriters decided that Beethoven's life didn't already contain enough drama for 10 movies and it needed a little support from their collective genius. Additionally, keying off of the fact that the Maestro needed help conducting the Ninth Symphony at its premier, they place Anna as the one who cues Beethoven during this historic performance. Although it is an established fact that Beethoven was a lousy conductor (largely due to a combination of his poor physical coordination and deafness), I rather doubt that this feminist/revisionist detail will wash with the more sophisticated viewer - not only from a historical perspective, but also because he was something of a misogynist too.

Indeed, his real life copyists were hardly "at one" with the Master. Far from it. Beethoven's querulous nature and perfectionistic streak, plus the incompetance of these men combined to prevent any kind of accord. In one of his copied scores there's a bit of scribbled marginalia that suggests volumes about his relations with his assistants: "Verfluchter Dummkopf!" ("Damned fool!")

It would appear that he would have benefited greatly from an "Anna Holtz" - if only she weren't a fictional construct!

Nontheless, you've seen this film and I haven't. I would very much like to hear your views on it. Perhaps (i.e. hopefully) my reservations are unfounded! Cthulhu knows that anything has to be better than Immortal Abhorred :D
How can I resist, Curt?;) First of all, like the very few quality classical music theme films we’ve seen and discussed before, the music and settings are satisfying to say the least. Fictional female copyist aside, it’s a believable brief account of the Master’s turbulent life’s last cadenza.

And yes, same as you, my first reaction to the name of Ed Harris – what? Him? Beethoven? Despite there’s something about him I’ve always liked, but…Beethoven?? Even himself was shocked when approached by the producer – What? Me? Beethoven?? You’ll be surprised, Curt, the transformation of Ed Harris turned out to be an incredibly successful story that Hollywood should all learn something from! He’s got that built-in rugged quality and certain depth already, after undergoing some crash education on classical music/aesthetics I assume, he did a terrific portrait of our moody, tragic, passionate, larger than life Maestro! And I must add Diane Kruger also played an interesting role. She has the essence some European actors possess and Hollywood’s lack: fresh and genuine. I don’t really mind this character being entirely fictional, it makes the film ‘fuller’. Imagine if Beethoven really had one beautiful female copyist he’s so found of, what tone colour would be added in the symphony 9?:D

At the symphony 9’s premier in the film, when it ended Beethoven was forced turned around by the musicians on stage to face the ecstatic audience on standing ovation, it’s a very, very touching moment – as you know it’s the historical fact. Not only that Beethoven was nervous, he did not hear the thunderous applause – he could not hear!

Curt, the next time you hit the DVD store, get it! I have a feeling you are going to enjoy every minute of it, or almost.:)
Yes, Ed Harris is a true artist who takes risks. I've always admired him, especially in one of my favourite films, The Right Stuff, but was stunned by the performance he gave as Jack the Dripper Pollack in Pollack. It says much for his artistic integrity that, while a huge fan of Pollack's work, he doesn't stoop to hagiography.

I can only imagine that he does no less with this new film about Beethoven (which, apparently, did not even receive a theatrical release in the U.S.). I will seek it out!
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