Ludwig van Beethoven died in 1827, a little early to be subjected to the kinds of DNA analysis that are so widespread today. Fortunately, the German-speaking world of the early nineteenth century still clung to the custom of salvaging strands of hair from the deceased—especially lucky for an archeology student named Tristan Begg and his collaborators in the study “Genomic Analyzes of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Hair,” published just this month in Contemporary Biology. In the above video from the University of Cambridge, Begg presents the research project and describes what new information it reveals about a composer whose life and work have been so intensively studied for so long.
“Working with an international team of scientists, I identified five genetically matched authentic hair strands and used them to sequence Beethoven’s genome,” says Begg. “We discovered significant genetic risk factors for liver disease and evidence that Beethoven contracted the hepatitis B virus no later than months before his final illness.”
And “although we could not determine the cause of Beethoven’s deafness or gastrointestinal problems, we found a modest genetic risk for systemic lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune disease. History remembers Beethoven as a not very healthy man; we now have a clearer idea of what conditions he may have suffered.
But the most revealing discoveries of this study concern not what Beethoven has in common, but what he does not. The famous lock of hair, “believed to have been cut from the dead composer’s head by the fifteen-year-old musician Ferdinand Hiller”, turns out to be from a woman. Even Beethoven himself was not of the “main Flemish line of Beethovens”, as evidenced by genetic evidence that “sometime between 1572 and 1770, an extramarital affair resulted in a child in Beethoven’s direct paternal line”. The news came as a shock to “five people in Belgium, whose last name is van Beethoven, who provided DNA for the study,” New York reports. TimesGina Kolata. But then, Beethoven’s music still belongs to them – just as it belongs to all of us.
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based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastson cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, book The Stateless City: A Walking Tour of 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.