If only Mozart had lived in Greece

Did the musical genius die from a deficit of sunlight?
Carolyn Moynihan | Jul 7 2011 | comment  

It is winter Down Under, and where I live -- on an isthmus on a large island in the South Pacific -- that means a lot of wind and rain. The temperature is not bad but the sun is elusive, suddenly disappearing behind clouds or dissolving into a downpour just as one is about to leave the house. An intense anti-cyclone generated over Australia gave us three brilliantly fine days at the end of last week and was something to talk about for several days more. “Fantastic weekend,” said the man at the service station mid-week as I paid for my petrol, and as a gale drove rain almost horizontally across the forecourt.

Yes, sunshine is a marvellous thing, its beneficence only truly appreciated when it is scarce during the winter months. Some folks actually fall into depression as the Sun migrates north -- or south -- a condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Presumably this sickness is more common the nearer the poles one lives, although, strangely enough, Scandinavian countries score the top spots on happiness polls year after year.

Finland, number two in the Gallup happiness stakes last year, located between latitudes 60 and 70 degrees north and at the edge of the European continent, has winters that last as long as seven months in the north, and even its own ambassadors admit that their country is “cold dark and snowy” for a significant chunk of the year. As the Monty Python song goes, “Finland, Finland, Finland, country where I quite want to be…”

A large contributor to Finnish life satisfaction is, no doubt, the country’s generous welfare state. Finns can also cheer themselves up in December by tobogganing in the snow and toasting themselves in front of roaring log fires (if carbon emission protocols still permit). What they cannot do anything about, apparently, is their sunlight deficit, which puts them at risk of vitamin D deficiency and related ailments.

All of which brings me to Mozart. In the play and film, Amadeus, Peter Shaffer has the great composer driven to death from exhaustion by the machinations of the insanely jealous Antonio Salieri. This dramatic conceit is just the most fanciful in a line of theories about what actually killed Mozart at the age of only 35. Poisoning, infection, heart and renal disease have all been suggested. No-one, it seems, has thought about the effect of long Austrian winters -- until now.

Writing in the journal Medical Problems of Performing Artists, San Francisco sunlight and nutrition specialist William B Grant, and Austrian endocrinologist Stefan Pilz, say that it is very likely the composer suffered from very low levels of vitamin D, which is an important risk factor for the other diseases already hypothesised. For one thing, he tended to do his composing at night and would therefore have slept much of the day, missing out on whatever sunlight there was. But even if he had been up and about on days that the sun shone it would not have done him much good. “At the latitude of Vienna, 48⁰ N, it is impossible to make vitamin D from solar ultraviolet-B irradiance for about 6 months of the year,” and the vitamin lasts in the blood for only four to six weeks, the scientists say.

Their argument is fortified by the fact that the many of the illnesses the great genius suffered from about the age of six occurred between mid-October and May, and he died on December 5, 1791, “two to three months into the vitamin D winter.” Many other diseases common in Vienna at that time are also linked with vitamin D deficiency: TB, cancer, diabetes mellitus, heart failure and pneumonia included.

Mozart was not the only musician to succumb to such ailments, nor has the profession -- with its demands for long hours of rehearsal and performance -- entirely shaken off its extra risk. Gustav Mahler, raised in what is now the Czech Republic (at 49⁰ N), developed a sore throat while working in New York with the Philharmonic orchestra in December 1910. He was diagnosed with bacterial endocarditis and died of it the following May at the age of 41. Vitamin D fights such blood-borne infections.

The brilliant British cellist Jacqueline du Pre had her career cut short by multiple sclerosis, which also seems linked with vitamin D deficiency. MS is more common in Scandinavia than countries further south, and new research in Sweden shows a prevalence rate which is among the highest in the world -- increasing with the increase in latitude.

What to do about this problem, short of migrating closer to the equator? Grant and Pilz end their letter by noting that people living at higher latitudes may need to take vitamin D supplement. But a Finnish team at the University of Helsinki researching seasonal affective disorder has a more interesting idea. They suggest that soaking up more sunlight in the summer may help you build up a store of the raw material (cholecalciferol) for making vitamin D during the winter. And vitamin D helps the body maintain higher levels of the happiness hormone serotonin.

All very interesting (at least, I think so) but what is the moral of this story? The obvious one is that lifestyles and working patterns that keep people indoors so much more than in former eras should be reviewed in the light of, er, the Sun and its importance to health and wellbeing.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times, “The Sun Is the Best Optometrist”, draws attention to the fact that nearsightedness has grown with the amount of time children spend indoors. Mothers who pull the plug on computer games and shoo their children outside are doing more than saving them from an obsession; they are protecting many aspects of their health. As they no doubt know.

Among other lessons there is probably one to be drawn about the burqa, especially when worn in higher latitudes. But I will leave that for another time.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet. She writes from Auckland, New Zealand.

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