Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The poisoned chalice

One of the most brilliant and startlingly original composers who ever lived was Ludwig van Beethoven.

He was capable of deep, stirring pathos, like the second movement of the Piano Sonata #8 ("Pathetique"), which I swear could make a stone cry.

Then there's the wild, joyous gallop of the first movement of the Seventh Symphony:

And if you haven't seen it, a must-watch is this Spanish flash mob performing the "Ode to Joy" from the Ninth Symphony.  When the voices come in, it makes me sob every damn time.

*brief pause to stop blubbering*

What blows me away about the Ninth Symphony -- beyond its staggering beauty -- is that when Beethoven wrote it, he was almost completely deaf.  The story goes that at the first performance, he conducted the orchestra -- and when it was over, the first violinist rose to gently turn around the great composer to see that the entire audience was on their feet, applauding wildly, many of them in tears.

Beethoven died in 1827 at the age of only 56 years, after decades of chronic ill health.  It's long been a question amongst music historians what ailment claimed his hearing, and finally his life; we know from his journals that he was plagued with stomach problems as well.  But was his hearing loss connected to his other health issues?

Apparently the answer is yes.  According to a study I was alerted to by my wonderful writer friend K. D. McCrite, a study that came out last week in the journal Clinical Chemistry indicates the likely cause of Beethoven's illness, deafness, and early death was lead poisoning.

The researchers analyzed two authenticated locks of Beethoven's hair that had been preserved in a museum, and found something astonishing -- the two samples contained 258 and 380 micrograms of lead per gram of hair.

For reference, the average person has about four micrograms of lead per gram of hair.

While not absolutely conclusive -- the researchers are showing caution about making assumptions regarding possible sources of contamination -- this seems like pretty strong evidence.  Lead poisoning is known to cause stomach and intestinal problems and also neurological damage, so it could account both for his digestive issues and his hearing loss (as well as his early death).  As far as where the lead could have come from, the researchers speculate it might have been from his known fondness for wine.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, lead acetate was added as a sweetener and de-clouding agent to cheap wine; corks were often soaked in solutions of lead salts before being used to stopper bottles.  Additionally, pewter wine vessels were common in Germany during the nineteenth century -- and pewter contains lead.

Whatever the source of the lead, it seems like the great composer's illness, deafness, and untimely demise might finally have an explanation.  Sad that such a genius suffered so greatly, but you have to wonder how much his pain and grief inspired the heart-wrenching beauty of his music.  No one would wish that suffering on anyone, but if it had to happen, at least Beethoven was able to distill it into something that still strikes our souls to this day.

"This man created some of the most beautiful music humanity was able to produce," said Nader Rifai, of Harvard Medical School, who co-authored the study.  "It was so incredibly tragic that he couldn’t hear this majestic music that he created."

But how fortunate for us all that we still can do so, almost two hundred years after his death.


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