Monday 27 April 2015


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Ludwig Van Beethoven

The Beethoven family were musicians with connections to the wine trade. The composer's Great Great Grandfather Guillaume Van Beethoven had been a wine merchant in Antwerp. Ludwig's grandfather, Ludwig the Kapellmeister had also dealt in wine.

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Johann Van Beethoven

and his father, Johann the Court Singer had also tried his hand in dealing in wine but is better remembered as an alcoholic. Beethoven himself was only a consumer but frequently used wine imagery in his letters and conversations.

'Wine is both necessary and good for me' Ludwig van Beethoven                

No mean imbiber but by the standards of the day, he was not held to be an excessive drinker. One source pointed out that he drank only one bottle of wine with his meal and when he tried to out-drink his guest from England, Sir George Smart he came off the worse.

Thayer, Beethoven's first serious biographer had the following to say about the unreliable memoir by Schindler which preceded it:

"his (Schindler's) earlier assumption, that in order to exhibit his influence to the public, Holz (Schindler's successor as Beethoven's assistant) led Beethoven into company and practices which he would otherwise have avoided, among them to the frequenting of taverns and to excessive wine-bibbing., were subsequently developed into an accusation that Holz had spread a report that the composer had contracted Dropsy from vinous indulgence. Beethoven was accustomed to drink wine from his youth up, and also in companionship  which he found at the inns and coffe houses of Vienna which are not to be confounded with the groggeries with which straight-laced Americans and Englishmen are prone to associate with the words. It was moreover undoubtedly a charitable act to drag him out of his isolation into cheerful company. We know that his physician found it difficult to make him obey their prohibition of wine...when he was ill., but that he was more given to wine-drinking in 1826 and 1826 than at any other period we learn only from Schindler, whose credibility as a witness on this point is impeached by the fact that, as he himself confesses, he seldom saw Beethoven between March 1825 and August 1826."

He was to some extent a discriminating drinker. Tokay was brought out for guests. When Stumpff, a German living in London visited him he reported

"Beethoven now produced the small bottle. It contained the precious wine of Tokay with which he filled the two glasses to the brim." 

On the other hand, Treitscke called on him when he had forgotten to turn up for a rehearsal and reported "beside him stood a goblet of wine with a biscuit in it".

He always held the wines of his native Rhineland in highest regard and thought little of the wine that was available in Vienna. This was mostly from the surrounding districts such as Voslau and Gumpoldskirchen (which he usually referred to as Krumpholz-Kirchen). He often complained that it was adulterated and indeed it may have been. Lead was commonly added to remove bitterness from wine and large quantities have been found in Beethoven's remains.

During his last illness he wrote to one of his publishers, Schott Soehne of Mainz, asking them to send some good Rhine wine which they did.

"I am allowed to drink Champagne...At first (Dr.) Malfatti wanted only Mosel but he assered there was none genuine to be obtained here; he therefore himself gave me several bottles of Krumpholz-Kirchen and claims that it is the best for my health, since no Mosel is to be had. Pardon me for being a burden, and ascribe it to my helpless condition.

They seem to have sent Champagne since he then wrote; "How shall I thank you enough for the Champagne? How greatly it refreshed me and will continue to do so!"

In his very last letter he wrote "concerning the wine, they consider the Grinzinger beneficial but prefer old Krumpholz-Kirchen over all others." In conversations thereafter and closer to his death there was reportedly 'considerable talk about wine'. If it was judged to be bad for him no one wanted to deprive him of what pleasure it gave considering the inevitability of his end.

Schott sent 12 bottles of Ruedesheimer Berg in March 1827.  They arrived on the 24th. His very last words (on learning of the wine's arrival) had been 'Pity, pity, too late.' In the autopsy performed after his death on March 26th, it was found that he had Cirrhosis of the Liver so drinking had hardly been good for him.

Nonetheless, water may have been even worse. Water was used for washing and cooking but was not safe to drink. Indeed cirrhosis can be caused by hepatitis due to impure water. Wine and beer was drunk by everyone instead; man, women and child. The daily consumption of wine in Mozart's Vienna had been a litre per inhabitant per day.

Beethoven frequently used wine imagery in his letters and conversation. The best known is this:

Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, it is the wine of a new procreation, and I am Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for men and makes them drunk with the spirit.  

and again;

"When I open my eyes I must sigh, for what I see is contrary to my religion, and I must despise the world which does not know that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, the wine which inspires one to new generative processes and I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken."

Wine was also a social lubricant for Beethoven. He would set out a bottle of wine for himself and two for a guest when entertaining. On one occasion he drank Champagne to excess in company and was unable to compose the following day but this was an exception.
For most of his life, he took his meals in inns and other eating establishments. People knew where he was to be found and frequently joined him. Because of his deafness he would hold court on these occasions delivering a monologue rather than engage in the difficult process of conversation. This entailed a lot of shouting into his ear, sometimes screaming or else writing in his conversation books. The alternative was to dine alone which seems to have been the rule. At those times he was seen to have been lost in thought. He also was an avid reader of newspapers which were and still are provided in Viennese eating establishments. The temptation to drink must have been present even if water has been an option.
Here is a famous note to his friend Zmeskall.  
Let us meet at seven this evening at the Schwann and drink more of their disgusting red wine.
There is a great deal that is poignant in Beethoven's life but there is some truth in Stockhausen's assessment of him as 'a miserable human being.' One of his last words was 'My day's work is done.' A touching understatement. Would he have lived longer had he been a teetotaler? In the end both his deafness and his death have been ascribed to Syphillis.