An international team of researchers used five genetically matching hair strands from Ludwig van Beethoven to sequence his genome. The team uncovered clues surrounding the composer’s health and his paternal line.

Graphical Abstract
Graphical Abstract

More details are available in the press release.

The locks of hair were compared to direct descendants of Aert van Beethoven, a paternal ancestor on Ludwig van Beethoven’s line.

Who was Ludwig van Beethoven?

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn to Johann van Beethoven and Maria Keverich. He was one of three children who survived infancy. At a young age, Johann promoted his son as a “child prodigy” after seeing the success of Mozart.

Beethoven had his first composition published at only 11 years old. By 22 years of age, he had composed a number of pieces, only to have them published later in his life. In his 30s, after years of public performances, his hearing loss led to a decline in concerts and a withdrawal from his social life. Despite the auditory problems, Beethoven continued to compose and perform music.

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.
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.

Beethoven died on March 26, 1827, at the age of 56. His last complete piece of music, Symphony No. 9, was premiered in 1824. Symphony No. 10 was left unfinished.

Previously, the cause of his death was attributed to heavy alcohol consumption. He was noted to often have episodes of fever, jaundice, and “wretched” gastrointestinal problems. But new DNA analysis shows he also may have had hepatitis B and genetic factors that played a role in his death.

Beethoven’s Hair

From the Victorian era through the early twentieth century, giving hair to friends and loved ones was seen as a sign of sentimentality. Although it was originally used as a sign of mourning, giving a loved one your hair was later used as a memento to give to them.

Beethoven gave eight friends strands of his hair throughout his lifetime. These strands have been well preserved and documented to ensure their authenticity.

DNA Analysis of Beethoven

The University of Cambridge, with help from FamilyTreeDNA and others, examined the hair in an effort to understand more about Beethoven. Members of the FamilyTreeDNA Research and Development team were able to assist with confirming the validity of Beethoven’s hair.

New information regarding Beethoven’s cause of death

While the common school of thought regarding Beethoven’s death has been linked to alcoholism, this new study suggests that he had a number of genetic risk factors for liver disease. Beethoven was also known to have consumed alcohol regularly. The actual amount is unknown, but through findings in Beethoven’s conversation books and a look at 19th-century Viennese standards, the level of consumption would be high enough to have harmful effects on his liver.

His DNA did not provide definite answers for his hearing loss and gastrointestinal problems, but significant genetic risk factors are likely to have all played a role.

Future research is still needed to clarify the role that risk factors, alcohol, and Hepatitis B played in his death.

Beethoven’s Y-chromosome

The FamilyTreeDNA R&D team was able to analyze living relatives from Beethoven’s genealogy who currently live in Belgium. While their family trees show a common ancestor between the late 1500s and early 1600s, they did not match on the Y-chromosome. This led researchers to believe that there was an extra-pair paternity event along Beethoven’s direct line.

Ludwig’s Genealogical Brick Wall

The new information regarding Beethoven’s Y-DNA and mtDNA has been added to the FamilyTreeDNA database. Customers may be able to find Beethoven in their match list, as well as explore his Y-DNA haplogroup within FamilyTreeDNA Discover™.

Customers who would like to aid in this research are able to upgrade their Y-DNA tests to provide more refined haplogroups and SNPs related to the composer’s haplogroup. The more information available for review, the closer we are to finding the truth about Beethoven’s cause of death and genetic paternal lineage.

Privacy Preference Center