Beethoven Suffered from Lead Poisoning

Tests confirm that Ludwig van Beethoven suffered from lead poisoning. The legendary composer, who experienced decades of illness that left him in misery for most of his life, died in 1827.

Researchers aren't sure why his lead levels were so high, but they have some ideas. "There are many possibilities," says Bill Walsh, who headed a team that studied Beethoven's hair samples and fragments from his skull at the Department of Energy laboratory in Argonne, Ill.

The composer was a wine lover, and wine at the time was known to contain high lead levels. He also drank out of a goblet made partially of lead and stayed at a spa where he drank mineral water, Walsh says. But Walsh says Beethoven may not have been exposed to higher-than-normal lead levels. The composer may have been hyper-sensitive to lead and his body may not have been able to eliminate it, Walsh says. Walsh says researchers are convinced the hair and bone samples they tested are Beethoven's because they came from two different sources and were matched by DNA tests.

The blue rise at the center of the chart shows high levels in Beethoven's bones; the red lines show much lower levels in a bone from a control subject, who lived in the same historical period.

Argonne National Laboratory

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Around 1801, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. He suffered a severe form of tinnitus, a "roar" in his ears that made it hard for him to appreciate music and he would avoid conversation. Over time, his hearing loss became acute: there is a well-attested story that, at the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, he had to be turned round to see the tumultuous applause of the audience, hearing nothing. In 1802, he became depressed, and considered committing suicide. He left Vienna for a time for small Austrian town of Heiligenstadt, where he wrote the "Heiligenstadt Testament", in which he resolved to continue living through his

As Beethoven's hearing loss worsened, he tried to improve his situation with these "hearing trumpets."  They did not work for him.

Beethoven's Ear Horns

As a result of Beethoven's hearing loss, a unique historical record has been preserved: he kept conversation books discussing music and other issues, and giving an insight into his thought. Even today, the conversation books form the basis for investigation into how he felt his music should be performed, and his relationship to art - which he took very seriously.

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The Man Who Wrote Mozart's words: Librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte

Lorenzo Da Ponte Engraving by Michele Pekenino
Lorenzo Da Ponte, was a Venetian priest and poet. Da Ponte wrote the words for 28 operas by 11 composers, including three of Mozart's greatest and most beloved operas — Don Giovanni, and The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte.

At certain creative junctures, even the greatest of artistic minds depend on empathetic collaborators to unlock their true potential.

Mozart, of course, composed numerous operas – a total of 22 musical dramas, to be precise – but more than 225 years after his death, it remains the realm of scholarly critical debate why he enjoyed such a prodigious, prolific run alongside Da Ponte. It cannot be a coincidence – lightning, as they, say, does not strike twice, let alone thrice.

Historically, listeners have tended to overlook Da Ponte’s contributions, characterising the Venetian wordsmith as smartly workmanlike, rather than inspired – the true genius, of course, was Mozart, his librettist a historical footnote.

Yet it remains amusing to remember that, when the pair first met in 1783, it was Mozart who was starstruck by his illustrious elder. Some seven years the composer’s senior, Da Ponte was at that time already shining among Vienna’s brightest lights. As the official poet to the Habsburg’s court theatre, he was ironically best known for composing librettos for Antonio Salieri.

Mindful of Salieri’s success, and eager to establish himself further in the same city, Mozart surmised that the key to fame was penning an Italian “opera buffa” in the same light-hearted, comic mould.

"The best thing is when a good composer, who understands the stage enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, that true phoenix,” Mozart wrote around this time.

He rightly supposed Da Ponte to be his “true phoenix”, yet the librettist repeatedly rejected the advances of the impoverished composer, overworked as he was writing for better-known names. Eventually, Mozart landed on a project he would not resist. A recent audience favourite had been Paisiello’s The Barber of Seville – more famously adapted by Rossini, three decades later, based on the French play of the same name by Pierre Beaumarchais.

Despite the fact the source material was banned, Mozart convinced Da Ponte to write a libretto based on its sequel, The Marriage of Figaro. After the latter succeeded in convincing his employer, Emperor Joseph II, that the play’s “subversive” content had been cut, the pair had themselves a modest hit.

Continuing the plot from Paisiello’s work, the opera told the farcical story of how the lowly barber Figaro eventually succeeds in marrying his beloved Susanna, despite the efforts of their lewd employer Count Almaviva.

Figaro was not quite the Viennese blockbuster Mozart was hankering after, running for only nine nights in total, but it did make history in its own way. Following the opera’s May 1786 premiere, conducted at the Burgtheater by Mozart himself, the stars returned to the stage for five encores, repeating favourite musical moments from the score – leading the impatient Joseph II to issue an official decree ordering that in future no vocal piece should be performed twice at the historic hall on a single evening.

However, Figaro did prove a smash in Prague, then the second city of the Habsburg Empire, early the next year, and Mozart was promptly commissioned to write another opera. This time it was Da Ponte who had the pertinent suggestion of revisiting the centuries-old tale of Don Juan.

The dramatic potential offered by this legendary libertine was to prove an intoxicating inspiration to Mozart, with the monumental Don Giovanni artistically eclipsing even its two chronological neighbours. Blurring the conventional boundaries between comedy and drama, there was a maturity and intensity to the score, and a metaphysical gravity to the theme, which paved the way for the romantic movement to come. The conflict between masked Juan’s roguish vice and Donna Anna’s earthly righteousness, between sensualist pleasure and religious invocation, willingly subverted Mozart’s perceived role as a mere entertainer.

Following its Prague premiere in October 1787, Don Giovanni was to have a rippling effect beyond the world of music – it is said Goethe began work on his masterpiece Faust after sitting down to the opera, while philosopher Kierkegaard was lyrically moved.

“The usefulness of Don Giovanni is that it puts a stake through the heart of the chocolate-box Mozart, the car-radio Mozart, the Mozart-makes-you-smarter Mozart,” once wrote the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. “If the opera were played in bus stations or dentists’ waiting rooms, it would spread fear. It would probably cause perversion in infants.”

The pair’s final collaboration Così Fan Tutte, another opera buffa which premiered 43 months after The Marriage of Figaro. Translated directly as 'Women are Like That', Mozart reluctantly wrote the lead role of Fiordiligi for Da Ponte’s mistress Adriana Ferrarese del Bene.

Recent research has undermined the well-worn legend that Joseph II commissioned the work. Instead, newer research supports the ironic notion that Mozart took on the project after Salieri felt unable to score a libretto – a harbinger of the further changes in favour to come.

In either case, Così Fan Tutte marks something of anomaly in Da Ponte’s oeuvre, as one of the only two original librettos from a catalogue of more than 50 which were otherwise based on existing material.

It was to prove not just his final work with Mozart, but his last contribution to the city which made his celebrity. Shortly after its premiere, at Vienna’s Burgtheater in January 1790, Joseph II passed away and, haunted by malicious rumours, Da Ponte was exiled by the succeeding monarch, Leopold II. He fled to London, where he was persecuted by debt and arrest, and later New York, where he worked variously as a grocer, a milliner, bookseller and an Italian teacher. Mozart, meanwhile, went on to write just three more operas before his death less than two years later.

The Composer and His Muse: Salieri, Mozart and Nancy Storace

Did Salieri plot Mozart's demise to the point of actually poisoning him? Or is it just as fanciful as all those serpents and magic bells in the younger composer's opera The Magic Flute?

Antonio Salieri was a hugely influential composer of opera and a much in-demand teacher who taught Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt. The chances are, however, that you've only ever heard of Salieri because he happened to be the arch-rival of the irrepressible Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Or was he?

The rise of the poisoning tale

Mozart's rivalry with Salieri could have originated with an incident in 1781, when Mozart applied to be the music teacher of Princess Elisabeth of Württemberg, and Salieri was selected instead because of his reputation as a singing teacher. In the following year Mozart once again failed to be selected as the Princess' piano teacher.

In addition, when Lorenzo Da Ponte was in Prague preparing the production of Mozart's setting of his Don Giovanni, the poet was ordered back to Vienna for a royal wedding for which Salieri's Axur, re d'Ormus would be performed. Obviously, Mozart was not pleased by this.

Within six years of Salieri's death, the Russian writer Pushkin wrote a play, Mozart and Salieri , which portrayed the danger of envy. In 1898, Rimsky-Korsakov turned Pushkin's play into an opera. In both, it's suggested that Salieri's jealousy of Mozart led him to poison the younger composer.

However, even with Mozart and Salieri's rivalry for certain jobs, there is very little evidence that the relationship between the two composers was at all acrimonious beyond this, especially after 1785 or so, when Mozart had become established in Vienna. Rather, they appeared to usually see each other as friends and colleagues, and supported each other's work. In several of Mozart’s letters, there is evidence that the Italians (supposedly lead by Salieri) in Emperor Joseph’s court did get in the way of several attempts to advance Mozart's career, and some of these are portrayed in the film Amadeus. There is, however, no clear proof that Salieri hated Mozart or plotted against him or planned his death, although those ideas made for a much more exciting story.

Where the film rings true is in its portrayal of Mozart's uncanny improvisational ability, his computer memory and instant recall, his effortless skill at composition - "without setting down his billiard cue" - his talent for languages and his genius for musical and verbal mimicry. That the divine Mozart could also curse like a sailor, improvise obscene verses and even talk backwards was also true  though its doubtful Salieri and his faction would have been as offended by Mozart's language as he is in the film. The late 18th century was not noted for its delicacy of language. However - all quibbles aside - this moving and hugely entertaining film is still an excellent introduction to Mozart, his music and his world.

Lost cantata by Mozart and Salieri found in Prague

A long-lost composition co-written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri was rediscovered in the Czech National Museum in Prague. German musicologist and composer Timo Jouko Herrmann found the piece while doing research on Antonio Salieri in the collection of the Czech Museum of Music. It’s a libretto written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, a Venetian priest and poet who wrote the librettos for three of Mozarts most beloved operas — Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte — and published by printer to the Imperial court in Vienna Joseph von Kurzböck. Very unusually for a libretto, this one includes the sheet music in a simple piano arrangement. Mozart and Salieri’s names do not appear anywhere in the pamphlet, only their initials in the musical notation identifying which measures were written by which composer. There is also a third composer credited, one Cornetti, who is unknown under that name.

The piece is entitled Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia (“For the recovered health of Ophelia”) and was written in 1785. The Ophelia in question was Nancy Storace, an English coloratura soprano who was friends with and muse to both Mozart and Salieri.

Nancy was a musical prodigy from a very young age. She gave her first public performance when she was eight years old and debuted at London’s Haymarket Theatre the next year. Her older brother Stephen was also a child prodigy, taught by his father to play violin so expertly that by the age of 10 he was performing the most complex, difficult pieces of the time.

Nancy traveled to Venice to take voice lessons from composer Antonio Sacchini and began getting professional gigs, rapidly rising from minor parts to leads and becoming something of a sensation. While still a teenager in 1782 she performed the role of Dorina in the Milan premiere of Giuseppe Sarti’s opera Fra I Due Litiganti Il Terzo Gode, a part that Sarti wrote specifically for her, to great acclaim.

When in 1783 Austrian Emperor Joseph II decided to put together a company dedicated to performances of Italian opera buffa (comic opera), he snapped up the 18-year-old Nancy Storace for his prima donna.

The opera that Nancy premiered was Antonio Salieri's La scuola de gelosi (The School of Jealousy), in which she took the role of the Countess Bandiera.  The plot of the opera involves love intrigues, attempted seductions and provocations to jealousy between members of the three different social strata: the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the working class, which was typical for plots in the early to late 1780s.

Mozart had first seen Nancy when she made her Viennese debut in Salieri’s La Scuola De’ Gelosi. He immediately fell in love with her as an artist and, it was rumored, their relationship actually went much deeper. Certainly Nancy and Stephen became part of Mozart’s circle and were often at his house, while he frequently had dinner with them and their mother.

The role of Susanna in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro was written for and first performed by her. it is possible that her lively acting style was the inspiration for the central character of Susanna.

When she was about to leave Vienna, Storace performed in a farewell concert on 23 February 1787. For this occasion Mozart wrote the concert recitative and aria "Ch'io mi scordi di te?

The rediscovery of Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia underscores that Mozart and Salieri were on good terms in 1785, even though a few years earlier Mozart had written in letters to his father of his frustration with the Italian cabal at the Viennese court. He thought Salieri, Da Ponte and other Italians who had the ear of the Emperor were blocking his ascent, but by 1785 Mozart was well-established and was working closely with said Italians. Salieri would go out of his way to express approval of Mozart’s work, even directing performances of several of his compositions.

Vasiliy Shkafer as Mozart and Fyodor Shalyapin as Salieri
(Russian Private Opera, 1898)

Nonetheless, decades after Mozart’s premature death rumors were rife that Salieri had poisoned his rival. The rumor was immortalized in art when, six years after Salieri’s 1825 death, revered Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote a verse drama Mozart and Salieri that posited Salieri as the bitterly jealous poisoner of the greater man. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov set the play to music in the opera Mozart and Salieri, and playwright Peter Shaffer based his 1979 play Amadeus on Pushkin’s drama. That in turn was adapted for film in the Oscar-winning movie of the same name directed by Miloš Forman. So now when people think of Mozart and Salieri they think of a rivalry unto the death, when in fact the two men were on quite good terms.

And now, possibly for the first time and certainly for the first time in centuries, here is Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia by Wolfgang Mozart and Antonio Salieri, played on the harpsichord by Lukas Vendl.