A team of international scientists, including FamilyTreeDNA, recently tested Beethoven’s hair and found new information that challenges Ludwig van Beethoven’s surname.

More information available in the press release.

What can be said about Ludwig van Beethoven that hasn’t already been said? As one of the most famous composers in history, much has already been written about his life and his work. But a recently published study sheds new light on the musical genius through his DNA.

Beethoven’s life and work

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, to a Flemish father and a German mother. His surname means “from Bettenhoven,” the Dutch name for a village in Belgium.

Beethoven’s talent was apparent as a child. He went through rigorous piano and violin training and held his first public performance at the age of seven. As a young adult, he moved to Vienna to study under Joseph Haydn, a mentor of Mozart and widely considered the “Father of the Symphony.”

Beethoven’s DNA illustration based on Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820. Image credit: Beethoven-Haus Bonn / Tristan Begg.

Beethoven continued to study, compose, and teach in Vienna until he started to lose his hearing in 1798. His increasing deafness had a substantial impact on his ability to perform, his composition process, and his mental well-being. Despite losing his hearing, Beethoven composed some of the most innovative and recognizable melodies in the world, including nine symphonies.

Beethoven’s DNA

During his lifetime, Beethoven gifted locks of hair to eight friends. These gifts were well documented; those documents and the locks have been preserved throughout time. A recently published study examined the DNA from those eight locks of hair to determine more about Beethoven’s illnesses and genealogy.

Testing Beethoven’s hair

Five of the eight tested locks of hair were determined to be from the same male individual. The DNA results of that individual were compared to FamilyTreeDNA’s autosomal, mitochondrial, and Big Y databases. Geographic ancestral origins of triangulated autosomal matches were analyzed and found to cluster around the Rhine River and within present-day North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, which fits with Beethoven’s reported geographic origins.

The individual’s Y-DNA haplogroup was determined to be I-FT396000, which was formed over 1,000 years ago. The FamilyTreeDNA Big Y database includes several tested descendants of this lineage with reported earliest known paternal ancestral locations in Germany and other countries.

The secret in Beethoven’s Y-DNA

This individual’s Y-DNA signature was then compared to that of the five living descendants who share a common direct paternal ancestor, Aert van Beethoven (1535-1609), with Ludwig van Beethoven.

While the Y-DNA of those five living descendants matched each other, they were determined to fall under the haplogroup R-Z2567, which does not match any of the eight tested locks of hair. Because there is strong historical evidence linking the five matching locks of hair to Beethoven, it was concluded that there is misattributed parentage somewhere in the seven generations between Aert van Beethoven’s son Hendrik (born around 1572) and Ludwig van Beethoven (born 1770).

Investigating Beethoven’s paternal line

To further investigate, the five closest Y-DNA matches to the hair sample were examined. These matches were contacted by FamilyTreeDNA and consented to an upgrade to Big Y, sponsored by the study at KU Leuven. The matches generously shared information about their direct paternal genealogy with FamilyTreeDNA and KU Leuven for the purposes of the study.

The Stumpff Lock in a laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Germany. Image credit: Anthi Tiliakou.

Unfortunately, the Time to Most Recent Common Ancestor (TMRCA) between these matches falls centuries before surnames were standardized, and the five matches each carry different surnames today, so Beethoven’s direct paternal lineage and the surname of the individual involved in the misattributed parentage were unable to be discovered.

Autosomal testing and analysis were also performed on three living descendants of Beethoven’s nephew, Karl van Beethoven, the son of Beethoven’s brother. These results were inconclusive, unable to determine whether Karl’s father and Ludwig were full or half-siblings.

So is this really Ludwig van Beethoven?

Yes! Despite the discovery of misattributed paternity through Y-DNA testing and the lack of connection to descendants of Ludwig’s brother, the five matching locks of hair were indeed concluded to have belonged to Ludwig van Beethoven.

The documentary evidence connecting the five matching locks of hair to Beethoven is extremely strong, and each story is unrelated to the other—the locks were distributed by the composer to various friends over the course of seven years, a common practice during this time. It would be implausible for each to have been replaced by locks of hair from the same male.

Illustration by Thomas Fairbanks after the August von Kloeber drawing in the H.C. Bodmer Collection, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn. Image credit: Beethoven-Haus Bonn / Thomas Fairbanks.

Belgian genealogical records, including those of the van Beethovens, are well documented, and it was determined to be unlikely that there is an error in the records themselves.

Find out if you match Ludwig van Beethoven!

If this discovery wasn’t already exciting enough, you can find out if you are a direct paternal match to Ludwig van Beethoven through our Big Y-700, a direct maternal match through our mtFull Sequence, or an autosomal match through our Family Finder or free autosomal transfer!

More matches for Beethoven also mean we have more leads to discover his true paternal line and unravel this mystery.

Match with Beethoven by taking a test today, and find out if he is a Notable Connection on your direct paternal line with Discover™!

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