Thursday, 26 March 2015

"Pity, Pity - Too Late!": The Death of Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (Bonn, Electorate of Cologne, 17th December 1770 – Vienna, Austria, 26th March 1827)


Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820
Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

On this day in 1827, Ludwig van Beethoven died. A musical legend, his name and compositions are feted throughout the world and used across a variety of media. Even if you don't think you know any of Beethoven's work, the chances are that you definitely do. By the time Beethoven died he had lived a life of great triumph and tragedy and even his death was not without some drama!


In the final years of his life, Beethoven’s health had been somewhat precarious and for the three months preceding his death, he had been overcome with vomiting and diarrhoea that caused him to take to his bed. Although he had experienced such episodes before, it soon became apparent to the composer’s friends that this time he would not recover. The efforts of doctors including Andreas Wawruch to relieve his suffering proved fruitless and those who cared for the composer were instructed to visit and pay their last respects, as time was growing short. Still lucid, though weak, the last words spoken by Beethoven were "pity, pity - too late!", when the ailing composer was told that a gift of wine he had been expecting had finally arrived.

Beethoven received the last rites on 24th March, just two days before he lost consciousness. Throughout his final days he was attended by his friend, the composer Anselm Hüttenbrenner, and he recorded his memories of those fateful hours, when a violent thunderstorm raged overhead. In the moments before his death, a thunderclap sounded directly over his Vienna home and Beethoven, for a moment, regained his senses.  He lifted his head and stretched out his arm for a second before the breath deserted him and, sinking back onto the bed, the great composer died.

Beethoven's death mask by Josef Danhauser
Beethoven's death mask by Josef Danhauser
Beethoven had been so distressed by his own illness that he requested that an autopsy be performed and this procedure took place on 27th March. Under the direction of Doctor Johann Wagner, it was revealed that the composer’s liver had suffered severe damage and showed signs of advanced cirrhosis. High levels of metal and lead were found in his blood, presumably having been consumed whilst drinking contaminated alcohol and throughout his organs there were signs of advanced and serious illness. Whether the cirrhosis was a result of alcoholism or other illness has never been adequately proven and explanations including hepatitis and syphilis have been put forward over the years.

Beethoven was laid to rest in the Währing cemetery on 29th March amid scenes of intense public mourning; though the composer was dead, however, his music lived on and continues to sound to this very day.


6 comments:

  1. The opening of the fifth Symphony and the Chorale of the 9th speak to the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. His body may have decayed but he will never die as long as music is played.

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  2. Ah Beethoven! I want the piano concertos for the theme music of my life: great crashing chords, whispered lows, triumphant march forward, and no wallowing around. I'm glad to remember him today. Off to find some music to play.

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    1. There is such passion and subtlety in his music, it's wonderful!

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  3. Fascinating and a great 'death bed' quote! Popping over from #ArchiveDay

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    1. Welcome! Wonderful last words, aren't they?

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