What Silenced Handel?
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Prior to the modern era, nobody knew what lead poisoning was or that it caused death. Scientific studies are now identifying prominent historical figures who succumbed to lead poisoning, including artists such as Ludwig van Beethoven and the painter Francisco Goya.
The latest study contends that lead poisoning is what killed the composer George Frideric Handel, most widely known for his masterpiece, Messiah.
A music historian, Dr. David Hunter of the University of Texas, postulates that Handel's lead poisoning came from his binge eating and drinking.
According to one story, Handel invited an old friend, famed painter George Goupy to dine at his home. Handel apologized for the meager meal, blaming it on financial woes. Later, though, Guopy found Handel stuffing himself with expensive delicacies. 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.
Hunter, who examined old documents, believes the composer suffered saturnine gout caused by too much lead exposure. In eighteenth century England, saturnine gout was common among miners and plumbers who worked with lead.
But the wealthy, such as Handel, were almost equally at risk, particularly if they drank heavily. That's because most English wine was imported from southern Europe, where lead was used to sweeten and stabilize wine for transport to England. Upon arrival, more lead was added to freshen the flavor. Port, which Handel favored, had very high 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.
By the time he died at the age of 74, he had suffered seizures, mental decline, and blindness. Ironically, Handel’s illness may have influenced him to write his famous English oratorios. These pieces express human suffering – an experience he came to intimately understand.