What Silenced Handel?

April 7, 2012

Medical Discovery News

What Silenced Handel?

Ancient Romans used lead to make everything from wine to savory dishes to water pipes, even after suspecting the metal was toxic to their health. Seventeenth century England was no different. No one knew then that enough lead caused death.

Scientific studies are starting to identify prominent historical figures who succumbed to lead poisoning, including Ludwig van Beethoven and painter Francisco Goya. Now a music librarian postulates lead also killed another great composer, George Frideric Handel.

Handel, known by most for his masterpiece, “Messiah,” was born in Eastern Germany in 1685 and died at age 74 in his adopted home, England. During his lifetime, writings show he was a binge eater, which was not a diagnosed condition at the time. According to one story, Handel invited an old friend, famed painter George Goupy, to dinner at his home. Handel apparently apologized for the meager meal, blaming it on financial woes. Yet after dinner, Goupy found his friend stuffing himself with delicacies he had claimed he couldn’t afford. Goupy left angry, and later painted a now famous caricature of Handel as an overweight, organ-playing pig surrounded by the objects of his gluttony.

It’s this overeating that led to overdrinking, which ultimately caused Handel’s lead poisoning, according to David Hunter, a music librarian at the University of Texas. By the time Handel died, he had suffered seizures, mental decline, and blindness. Hunter, who examined Handel’s medical records and other writings, identifies the composer’s condition as saturnine gout, a form of gout caused by too much lead exposure.

During this time, saturnine gout was common among miners, pot menders and plumbers who worked with lead. But, the wealthy such as Handel were at an almost equal risk, particularly if they drank heavily. Most English wine was imported from southern Europe, where lead was often added to sweeten and stabilize it for transport to England. Upon arrival, unscrupulous wine merchants would add more lead to freshen the flavor. Port, which Handel favored, contained even higher levels of lead since it was made in stills with lead pipes.

Early symptoms of lead poisoning include headaches, colic and irritability. Handel had a reputation for being irritable with his musicians. As lead accumulates in the body, more of it will bring on small strokes, deafness, blindness, coma and eventually death. Though the evidence is convincing, there’s no proof Handel died from lead poisoning. None of his hair survived for chemical analysis because the musician had kept his head shaved.

Ironically, Handel’s illness may have influenced him to switch from writing operas to English oratorios, which is what he’s largely remembered for today. They’re contemplative works that would have mirrored his worsening health in the last two decades of his life. These pieces mirror the suffering of humankind – an experience he intimately shared.

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