Lead in His Red: Wine Killed Beethoven, Suggests Provocative New Research

A professor in Belgium has composed a case for the true cause of the virtuoso's death. Did his autopsy cover it up?

Lead in His Red: Wine Killed Beethoven, Suggests Provocative New Research
A case of Resting Beethoven Face on a monument at the Tiergarten at Berlin (iStockPhoto)
Jan 23, 2020

By the end of his life, classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven's body was performing a full symphony of ailments and afflictions, very loudly. By 1827, the 56-year-old Beethoven was bedridden with a failing liver and pancreas, migraines and abdominal pain, unable to hear or work. Beethoven's doctors, noting the master's fondness for drink, concluded in their autopsy that he was felled by cirrhosis, with pancreatitis and peritonitis as likely contributing factors. But in recent research published in La Libre Belgique, professor Fabrizio Bucella of the Université Libre de Bruxelle, surmises there was more to it than alcohol—and even that Beethoven's doctors might have had motive to release a clean bill of death. "Wouldn't they try to justify themselves after the fact, having been unable to prevent the master's death?" Bucella wondered to Unfiltered via email.

What if it wasn't just the quantity of Beethoven's wine that killed him, but the quality? Specifically, the quality of having lethal amounts of an insalubrious wine additive of the time: lead. The autopsy sealed Beethoven's reputation as a hard-bitten boozer, though his physicians didn't much help: Even on his deathbed, a quorum of doctors attempted to remedy him with spiked punch, which was unsurprisingly ineffective. But was he? "What does it mean to drink a lot of wine?" Bucella mused to us. One source pegged Beethoven at a bottle per meal, which "seems huge from 2020, but the wines were not products with 13 percent alcohol"—often much, much less—and drinking microbe-infested water from Vienna's wells would be a quicker ticket to the grave.

In 2013, new evidence arose in the mystery of the maestro's demise: a toxicology analysis of his hair and bones indicating very high—poisonous—concentrations of lead at his time of death. It has been argued that Beethoven was exposed to this through the era’s lead-crystal glasses and lead-laden dishware, but Bucella argued that "that cannot explain the concentrations measured. Another hypothesis must therefore be postulated: that of intoxication by adding lead directly into the wine."

If it was lead in Beethoven’s wine that finally rang his bell, how exactly did it get there? Bucella shared the findings of French wine writer Jacques Dupont (other Beethoven scholars he relied on included P. J. Davies, François Mai and Michael H. Stevens). Some of Beethoven’s preferred tipples—lower-quality wines from Mainz (today, Germany) and Buda, Hungary—were often "treated" with litharge, a mineral form of lead monoxide; it would be added to “green or sour wines” to soften their character and “correct the taste of the wine’s greenness.” (Other "corrective" tools Dupont cites in the 18th-century winemaker's kit: sarsaparilla, a tea of gentian root ("not pleasant") and tossing a red-hot steel tile into a barrel.) Alas, according to his secretary, Beethoven "was not an expert" enough to discern regular wine from the poison kind, and the lead diagnosis came two centuries too late. And so it may well be that what kept the world from experiencing a magnificent 10th Symphony was … negligent corner cutting in the plonk-wine market.


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