A genius by his hair

June 14, 1996|By DENNIS BARTEL

THERE'S BAD NEWS for music lovers. We will soon know the levels of zinc and lead in Beethoven's body at the time of his death. Scientists in Illinois are studying a lock of Beethovian hair in search of the Great Composer's chemical structure.

The lock, one of several clipped upon his death in 1827 at age 56, was bought at auction by two Arizona Beethovenites and subsequently donated to the Health Research Institute in Naperville, near Chicago. The Institute is combing through the symphonist's righteous moss looking for various substances. William Walsh, its president, says, ''Over the past 20 years, we've observed an unusual pattern of trace elements -- high copper, low zinc and high sodium -- associated with high intelligence. We're definitely going to test for that.''

The Great Composer has already been tested for drugs, such as morphine, and came out negative.

Near the end of his life, when his chemical make-up was most like that in the hair presently under examination, Beethoven composed his most complex and spiritual music, including his late string quartets. Will science determine that Ludwig van took his quantum musical leap with the considerable aid of a salty diet?

I, for one, will be listening for the results. But while I recognize the value of this advance in medical science, the enterprise nonetheless makes me feel queasy, like a time-traveling voyeur, similar to how I felt upon learning of the infamous head exam of Robert Schumann.

Scientific skull study

In 1885, three decades after Schumann's death, a German professor of ''scientific skulls studies,'' named Schaafhaus, devised the plan of comparing the Great Composer's skull with the plaster casts of present-day artists and esteemed thinkers. Professor Schaafhaus gained permission from Bonn officials responsible for the safekeeping of the town's dead to exhume Schumann's grave and cut off the head. Herr Doktor probed and measured the cranium that produced Kinderscenen, found nothing unusual, then put it aside. This specimen became lost. To this day, Schumann's head is missing.

Work such as that done at the Health Research Institute will no doubt fill in gaps in our historical knowledge. Just as we have learned that iodine shortages have led to widespread mental retardation in present-day China, we may also learn that the aggressive ''blood and iron'' of Bismarck's Germany was the result of an excess of iron in German blood; that the Spanish Inquisition was chiefly caused by a niacin and magnesium deficiency among paranoid nobles; that Elizabethan peasants stank because they lacked Vitamin B-12.

But sifting through the remains of past civilizations somehow doesn't smack of the tawdry, whereas stirring the dust of past icons does. What will we have gained if, say, we learn that Paul Gauguin's eye for radiant color was due less to his innate genius and more to his innate riboflavin, or that the original Macbeth did not ''kill sleep'' with his bloody deeds, but merely lacked potassium and biotin, a common cause of insomnia?

Why not examine the chemical structure of today's geniuses and let men and women who achieved immortality in their lifetime rest in peace? Did they not earn at least as much, especially

those whose stature was achieved not by evil but by great works -- like Beethoven and his Ninth Symphony.

It seems unnecessary and disrespectful that the Great Composer who gave musical life to ''Ode to Joy'' and its declaration ''You millions, I embrace you. This kiss is for all the world!'' should now be made to suffer the indignity of our rummaging through his scraps for clues to what molecular compounds were really responsible for his loving us, after all.

Dennis Bartel is a Baltimore free lance.

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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