A stormy Monday in March 1827 the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven died after a long illness. Bedridden since last Christmas, he was attacked by jaundice, his limbs and abdomen swollen, every breath a struggle.
As his staff began the task of sorting through personal effects, they uncovered a document Beethoven had written a quarter of a century earlier—a will imploring his brothers to make public details of his condition.
Today, it’s no secret that one of the greatest musicians the world has ever known was functionally deaf in his mid-40s. It was a tragic irony, Beethoven wanted the world to be understood, not just from a personal perspective, but a medical perspective.
The composer would outlive his doctor by nearly two decades, but close to two centuries after Beethoven’s death, a team of researchers set out to fulfill his will in ways he would never have dreamed possible by genetically analyzing the DNA of authenticated samples of his hair.
“Our primary goal was to shed light on Beethoven’s health problems, which famously include progressive hearing loss beginning in his mid-to-late 20s and eventually leading to him being functionally deaf in 1818.” said biochemist Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.
The primary cause of this hearing loss has never been known, not even to his personal physician Dr. Johann Adam Schmidt. What began as tinnitus in his 20s slowly gave way to a reduced tolerance for loud noise and eventually a loss of hearing in the higher pitches, effectively ending his career as a performing artist.
For a musician, nothing could be more ironic. In a letter addressed to his brothers, Beethoven admitted that he was “hopelessly afflicted”, to the point where he contemplated suicide.
It was not only hearing loss that the composer had to deal with in his adult life. From the age of at least 22, he is said to have suffered severe stomach pains and chronic bouts of diarrhoea.
Six years before his death, the first signs of liver disease appeared, a disease believed to have been at least partially responsible for his death at the relatively young age of 56.
In 2007 a forensic examination of a lock of what is believed to be Beethoven’s hair suggested that lead poisoning may have hastened his death, if not ultimately been responsible for the symptoms that cost him his life.
Given the culture of drinking from lead vessels and medical treatments of the time that involved the use of lead, this is hardly a surprising conclusion.
This latest study, published in March this year, debunks the theory, but reveals that the hair never came from Beethoven in the first place, but rather an unknown woman.
More importantly, several locks confirmed as far more likely to have come from the composer’s head show that his death was likely the result of a hepatitis B infection, exacerbated by his drinking and several risk factors for liver disease.
As for his other relationships?
“We were unable to find a definitive cause for Beethoven’s deafness or gastrointestinal problems,” said Krause.
In some ways, we are left with more questions about the life and death of the famous classical composer. Where did he get hepatitis? How did a lock of women’s hair like Beethoven’s last for centuries? And what exactly was behind his stomach pain and hearing loss?
As the team was inspired by Beethoven’s desire for the world to understand his hearing loss, this is an unfortunate outcome. Although there was another surprise buried among his genes.
Further studies comparing the Y chromosome in the hair samples with those of modern relatives descended from Beethoven’s paternal line point to a mismatch. It seems that there was a bit of extramarital hanky-panky going on in the generations leading up to the composer’s birth.
“This finding suggests an extrapair paternity event in his paternal line between the conception of Hendrik van Beethoven in Kampenhout, Belgium in about 1572 and the conception of Ludwig van Beethoven seven generations later in 1770, in Bonn, Germany.” said Tristan Begg, a biological anthropologist now at the University of Cambridge in the UK.
It might all be a little more than a younger Beethoven had bargained for, given the fateful request he put on paper. Never would he have dreamed of the secrets that were preserved when his friends and associates cut the hair from his body in the wake of that gloomy stormy Monday night in 1827.
This study was published in Current Biology.
An earlier version of this article was published in March 2023.