Beethoven’s Genome Has Been Sequenced for the First Time, Revealing Clues About the Great Composer’s Health & Family History

Lud­wig van Beethoven died in 1827, a bit ear­ly to be sub­ject­ed to the kinds of DNA analy­sis that have become so preva­lent today. Luck­i­ly, the Ger­man-speak­ing world of the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry still adhered to the cus­tom of sav­ing locks of hair from the deceased — par­tic­u­lar­ly lucky for an archae­ol­o­gy stu­dent named Tris­tan Begg and his col­lab­o­ra­tors in the study “Genom­ic analy­ses of hair from Lud­wig van Beethoven,” pub­lished just this month in Cur­rent Biol­o­gy. In the video from Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty just above, Begg intro­duces the research project and describes what new infor­ma­tion it reveals about the com­pos­er whose life and work have been so inten­sive­ly stud­ied for so long.

“Work­ing with an inter­na­tion­al team of sci­en­tists, I iden­ti­fied five genet­i­cal­ly match­ing, authen­tic locks of hair and used them to sequence Beethoven’s genome,” Begg says. “We dis­cov­ered sig­nif­i­cant genet­ic risk fac­tors for liv­er dis­ease and evi­dence that Beethoven con­tract­ed the Hepati­tis B virus in, at the lat­est, the months before his final ill­ness.”

And “while we could­n’t pin­point the cause of Beethoven’s deaf­ness or gas­troin­testi­nal prob­lems, we did find mod­est genet­ic risk for Sys­temic Lupus Ery­the­mato­sus,” an autoim­mune dis­ease. His­to­ry remem­bers Beethoven as a not par­tic­u­lar­ly healthy man; now we have a clear­er idea of which con­di­tions he could have suf­fered.

But this study’s most rev­e­la­to­ry dis­cov­er­ies con­cern not what has to do with Beethoven, but what does­n’t. The famous lock of hair “once believed to have been cut from the dead com­poser’s head by the fif­teen-year-old musi­cian Fer­di­nand Hiller” turns out to have come from a woman. Nor was Beethoven him­self “descend­ed from the main Flem­ish Beethoven lin­eage,” which is shown by genet­ic evi­dence that “an extra­mar­i­tal rela­tion­ship result­ed in the birth of a child in Beethoven’s direct pater­nal line at some point between 1572 and 1770.” This news came as a shock to “the five peo­ple in Bel­gium whose last name is van Beethoven and who pro­vid­ed DNA for the study,” writes the New York Times’ Gina Kola­ta. But then, Beethoven’s music still belongs to them — just as it belongs to us all.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Stream the Com­plete Works of Bach & Beethoven: 250 Free Hours of Music

Beethoven’s Unfin­ished Tenth Sym­pho­ny Gets Com­plet­ed by Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence: Hear How It Sounds

The Sto­ry of How Beethoven Helped Make It So That CDs Could Play 74 Min­utes of Music

Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Cre­ativ­i­ty Machine Learns to Play Beethoven in the Style of The Bea­t­les’ “Pen­ny Lane”

Hear a “DNA-Based Pre­dic­tion of Nietzsche’s Voice:” First Attempt at Sim­u­lat­ing Voice of a Dead Per­son

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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