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Use & Abuse
Shock! Horror! Beethoven Killed by Drinking Wine!
Thursday, 8th December, 2005  - Richard Farmer

Ludwig van Beethoven

Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, it is the wine of a new procreation, and I am Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for men and makes them drunk with the spirit.

-- Ludwig van Beethoven, quoted in Marion M Scott, Beethoven (1934)

The last recorded words of Ludwig van Beethoven on his death bed were "Pity, pity—too late!", as the composer was told of a gift of twelve bottles of wine. He died on March 26th, 1827 from causes that have been the subject of much speculation from then on.

Now Dr. William Walsh claims that four researchers at the Pfeiffer Treatment Center at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, USA, have conclusive proof that it was drinking wine that did it. Analysis of hair and a fragment of bone from Beethoven's skull tested in an X-ray machine three years ago showed Beethoven died of massive lead poisoning. The researchers were sworn to secrecy until the skull fragments could be authenticated. That happened just weeks ago.

Physicist Ken Kemner remembers the moment when the X-rays showed Beethoven died of massive lead poisoning. "Riding home, I realized only four people in the world knew what Beethoven died of," Kemner said. "I put in the Ninth Symphony, and I played it with joy. And I cried."

The killer lead probably came from the cup Beethoven used to drink wine on a regular basis, and possibly from the wine itself. In Beethoven's time lead was used widely for sweetening wine without an understanding of the damage it could lead to. Author Russell Martin investigated the lead link in his book Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved.

It is known that Beethoven's favourite drinking establishment in central Vienna was the zum Weissen Schwan Inn ( White Swan Inn) which stood in the Neuer Markt, which then as today features an ornate fountain depicting the Danube with figures representing its tributaries. The small expatriate community from Germany - the Beethoven brothers, Stephan von Breuning, Ferdinand Ries, Ignaz Gleichenstein - joined by their close Viennese friends like the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, would meet at a table in the corner to exchange news from home and commiserate with each other as Napoleon Bonaparte swallowed their homeland.

Beethoven regularly used to meet his friends at the Schwan to drink. Most often Beethoven would drink red wine, made from grapes grown locally on the foothills of the Kahlenberg at the eastern end of the Vienna Woods. It was rough and intoxicating, if Beethoven is to be believed. In one note to Nikolaus Zmeskall, an official at the Hungarian Chancellery, an amateur cellist and a frequent drinking companion, Beethoven writes, "Let us meet at seven this evening at the Schwan and drink more of their disgusting red wine."

Where the Schwan Inn once stood there is now a bookshop. No sign commemorates the establishment in which Beethoven spent so much time. Next to the Schwan in Beethoven's day stood the Mehlgrube, a small concert hall that in the Middle Ages had been - as it name translates - a flour store. Beethoven performed there with the Italian double bass virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti. Today in its place is an exclusive four star hotel, the Ambassador.

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