Beethoven's Favorite Way To Drink Wine Was Lethal

Statue of Beethoven
Statue of Beethoven - ArTono/Shutterstock

In 1802, Ludwig van Beethoven left the hubbub of Vienna for the town of Heiligenstadt, about an hour outside the city. At just 31, the composer's body was already starting to deteriorate and he hoped some rest and isolation would do him good.

There, he wrote a letter to his brothers outlining the shame and desperation he felt over his failing health, particularly his hearing loss. He also begged his brothers to figure out the cause of his illness after he died, writing, "... attach this document to the history of my illness so that so far as possible at least the world may become reconciled with me after my death."

Beethoven lived another 25 years, though his health never improved. Despite his entreaty to his brothers, historians have never been able to pinpoint his cause of death. But now, new evidence suggests an answer, thanks to businessman and Beethoven fan Kevin Brown. Brown, who wanted to honor the composer's wish, sent three locks of Beethoven's hair from his personal collection to the Mayo Clinic for testing. The locks showed shockingly high levels of lead.

The culprit? Likely Beethoven's love of wine. Of course, overindulging in alcohol is never good for your health — and Beethoven's tendency to overindulge is well documented. But the cheap wine the composer favored was often flavored with lead acetate, a type of lead known for its sweet taste.

Read more: What Happens If You Accidentally Eat Mold?

Wine May Have Led To Beethoven's Death

Wine casks
Wine casks - Zsolt Biczo/Shutterstock

Also known as "lead sugar," the practice of sweetening wine with lead acetate dates back to the ancient Greeks. In 2010, archeologists tested bottles of 19th century champagne uncovered from a shipwreck in the Baltic sea and found the champagne contained high levels of lead. Even wine that didn't have added lead would've been exposed to the toxic substance. The kettles used to ferment wine were soldered with lead; lead was also added to crystal glassware and used to seal wine bottles.

Lead poisoning probably wasn't the sole culprit in Ludwig van Beethoven's death. The composer suffered from hepatitis B, and many of his ailments were likely genetic. However, lead poisoning likely exacerbated his hearing loss and gastrointestinal problems, including the liver and kidney issues that killed him.

Beethoven believed that wine was good for his health. His love of wine lasted until his final moments: as he neared the end of his life, the composer asked his publisher to send him wine from Rhineland. The composer, who'd grown up in the region, wanted to taste the wine one last time. The wine took over a month to arrive; by then, the composer was on his deathbed, unable to drink. The recent findings add an additional layer of tragic irony to his last recorded words, spoken in reference to the bottles: "Pity, pity, too late."

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