Tuesday, May 21, 2024

DNA sheds light on Beethoven’s death but raises questions about his birth

In 1802, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote a letter in which he asked his brothers to request that Dr Johann Adam Schmidt make details of his hearing loss public immediately after his death.

The 32-year-old composer lamented that people had mistaken him for “malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic” when in fact he had been concealing a terrible affliction. He asked: “How could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection . . .”

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820. Image: Beethoven-Haus Bonn

In the event, Beethoven outlived his favourite physician, Dr Schmidt, by 18 years. However, scientists say they have acted in the spirit of his wishes in sequencing his genome for the first time and publishing revelatory insights into his medical and family history. The analysis, based on DNA from locks of Beethoven’s hair, sheds new light on his last illness and raises the possibility that he may have been illegitimate.

Among their medical findings, the researchers found evidence that Beethoven had a genetic predisposition for liver disease. The analysis also reveals that he was infected by hepatitis B, at least during the months leading up to his death on March 26, 1827. “Together with the genetic predisposition and his broadly accepted alcohol consumption, these present plausible explanations for Beethoven’s severe liver disease, which culminated in his death,” the researchers write.

It was previously well-known that Beethoven suffered from progressive hearing loss from his mid to late 20s onwards. This was already fairly advanced by the time he wrote his Third Symphony in 1803-4. From at least his early 20s he also suffered from debilitating gastrointestinal complaints characterised by abdominal pains and prolonged bouts of diarrhoea. The DNA analysis did not find any genetic explanation for his deafness or gastrointestinal problems. He also exhibited symptoms of liver disease from the summer of 1821 and it is believed that he died from cirrhosis.

The study, in the journal Current Biology, indicates that Beethoven was at an especially elevated risk of liver disease if he was a heavy drinker, as some medical biographers have suggested. One close friend of the composer is alleged to have said that around 1825-26 he was consuming at least a litre of wine with lunch every day. The researchers said one of the gene variants he carried is linked to a 31 per cent prevalence of liver disease and cirrhosis in heavy-drinking men. That’s compared to a prevalence among all male heavy drinkers of 21 per cent.

The discovery of Beethoven’s hepatitis B infection — which made him even more vulnerable — derives from analysis of the “Stumpff lock”, which was cut after his death by his friend and funeral organiser Johann Schickh and sent to the London harp-maker Johann Strumpff. It is because the DNA from the Strumpff lock matches that from four other locks with good provenance to Beethoven that the researchers are confident it is the composer’s.

The Stumpff Lock, from which Beethoven’s whole genome was sequenced, with inscription by former owner Patrick Stirling. Photo: Kevin Brown

The DNA is also similar to that of people living in present day North Rhine-Westphalia, consistent with Beethoven’s known German ancestry.

However, there was a surprise among the genealogical findings. The research shows that Beethoven’s Y chromosome haplogroup — DNA passed down the male line from father to son — didn’t match that of any of five modern-day Beethovens descended from his purported ancestor Aert van Beethoven. The study suggests an extramarital “event” occurred in the composer’s paternal line sometime between the conception of Aert’s son Hendrik in Kampenhout in modern-day Belgium, around 1572, and Ludwig’s birth in Bonn in 1770.

Significantly, analysis of autosomal DNA, deriving from ancestors in all lines, found that three living descendants of Beethoven’s nephew Karl shared no DNA segments of genealogically meaningful size with the composer. The team’s statistical models indicate that such a result would be considerably more likely if the composer was a half-brother of Karl van Beethoven’s father Kaspar, rather than a full brother — with a probability of 8.3 per cent, compared to one of 0.9 per cent.

This raises the prospect that the composer may have been illegitimate and not the biological son of musician and teacher Johann van Beethoven.

Tristan Begg, of Cambridge University, the study’s lead author, said: “I’m simply saying that’s a possibility and you have to consider it. In that event he would have been half-brother to his sibling and therefore eighth-degree relatives to the descendants of Karl, which is why we had to run two sets of pedigree simulations. It’s just being as thorough as we can possibly be, considering all possibilities and trying to present all the range of probabilities. We’re not advocating for it. We are, in fact, completely agnostic.”

Johann’s van Beethoven’s marriage was not a happy one. He was a heavy drinker and his wife Maria once advised a young friend to “stay single” for a peaceful and enjoyable life.

During Ludwig’s own lifetime, he was rumoured on occasion to be the illegitimate son of Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia. He was slow to challenge the aggrandising claim but eventually suggested to a childhood friend that he might “make known to the world the integrity of my parents, and especially of my mother.”

“We were extraordinarily lucky to have such fascinating findings”

Tristan Begg

The researchers said future studies of his relatives may help to clarify details of his paternal lineage and his biological relationship to modern descendants of the Beethoven family. They note that one Beethoven biographer has suggested, on circumstantial grounds, that the composer’s father Johann was illegitimate and not the biological son of Ludwig van Beethoven the Elder.

Among their other findings, the team were able to show that a lock of hair that has previously been used to claim that Beethoven suffered from lead poisoning and took opiates was not Beethoven’s and originated from a woman.

Begg, a final-year biological anthropology PhD researcher, said: “We were extraordinarily lucky, despite this project taking eight years, to have such fascinating findings. Because for every branch of research we did — authentication, genetic genealogy, heritable disease risk and infectious disease risk — we got something interesting. For most people on the planet, and therefore for most historical figures, there’s going to be nothing wrong with them obvious and they’re going to be related to everyone they’re supposed to be related to.”

The top image shows Beethoven asleep at piano, exhausted after the efforts of composing. After J.C. Leyendecker. Photo: Alamy

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