On this day in 1827, one of the most famous figures in musical history, German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven, died.
Born in Bonn, Germany, most likely in 1770, the young Beethoven grew up in a musical home. His father taught violin, piano, and voice, the very first lessons Beethoven received. He went on to study with Joseph Haydn and other musical greats, quickly gaining a reputation as a virtuoso pianist. Establishing his career in Vienna, Beethoven achieved world renown as a composer, conductor, and performer–even as he was going completely deaf.
In fact, some of the virtuoso’s most admired work was produced during his “Late Period,” as he suffered from increasingly deteriorating health. By December 1826, Beethoven experienced a severe bout of illness, with prolonged episodes of vomiting and diarrhea. Doctors performed four minor operations to relieve the composer’s abdominal swelling, one of which resulted in an infection. As it was clear he was close to death, Beethoven’s friends visited to pay their final respects. On 24 March, Beethoven was given his last rites and two days later, on 26 March 1827, while lying in his bed in an unconscious state, the virtuoso died. Beethoven’s sister-in-law and his close friend Anselm Huttenbrenner were the only ones present at the time of his death. Though legend has it Beethoven’s last words were “Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est.” (“Applaud my friends, the comedy is over.”), or “I shall hear in heaven,” Huttenbrenner denied such tales. In fact, Beethoven’s last recorded words were “Pity, pity–too late!” upon receiving word that his publisher sent a gift of 12 bottles of wine.
On 27 March, an autopsy revealed Beethoven had suffered from a severely cirrhotic and shrunken liver, likely due to heavy alcohol consumption, a hepatic infection, or both. His kidneys also had calcareous growths, suggesting he was developing renal papillary necrosis. His spleen was also swollen to double its normal size and his pancreas was shrunken and fibrous, indicative of severe pancreatitis. Though the exact cause of death was never established, pathologists consider alcoholic cirrhosis, syphilis, infectious hepatitis, lead poisoning, sarcoidosis, and Whipple’s disease as possible causes. Beethoven was buried on 29 March in the Wahring cemetery northwest of Vienna, where thousands of citizens lined the streets for the funeral procession.
Upon his death, Beethoven left a mystery that lingers to this day: an unsent love letter found in his estate and addressed to “Immortal Beloved.” The three-part letter begins “My angel, my everything, my very self.” To this day scholars cannot ascertain to whom Beethoven intended this letter.
Credit: © GL Archive / Alamy
Caption: A portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler.