The answers to decades-long questions about the health issues suffered by famed classical music composer Ludwig van Beethoven have been found in the most unexpected of places. Thanks to in-depth examination of his hair, scientists have revealed that Beethoven was not just a hard boozer with a sexually transmitted disease. It turns out he was also genetically destined to suffer liver disease.
Unveiling the Rockstar Life, and Frail Health, of Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was a German pianist and composer who is often cited as one of the forefathers of Western classical music. Born in December 1770 his first recorded piece of music was a set of nine piano variations composed in 1782, when he was just twelve.
Despite being a child prodigy, by the time he was 28 he had reported his first hearing problems. Whether Beethoven contracted syphilis has been debated for decades, but it is known that he enjoyed the company of prostitutes and his own doctor between 1806 and 1816 insisted he did indeed have syphilis. By the time Beethoven was 44 or 45, he was totally deaf, and unable to communicate without written notes which he passed back and forth to his colleagues, visitors and friends.
Now, a team of researchers has examined DNA collected from a substantial sample of Beethoven’s hair: 5 meters and 55 centimeters (18 ft) to be precise. Thanks to the use of cutting-edge scientific analysis, it has finally been determined that the musical giant had indeed contracted hepatitis B , and that he “drank himself to death” by accelerating his inherited liver disease.
The Stumpff Lock, from which Beethoven’s whole genome was sequenced, with inscription by former owner Patrick Stirling. (Kevin Brown)
Hard Boozing Accelerated Beethoven’s Liver Disease
One of the greatest composers of all time, Beethoven began to experience hearing loss in his late 20s and was completely deaf by his mid-40s. Despite his deafness, Beethoven composed music and conducted orchestras, relying only on the vibrations of the instruments to guide him. His later works, such as his Ninth Symphony, were created entirely within the confines of his own head and he died never having heard them performed live.
In a series of new genetic tests, scientists were able to decipher Beethoven’s genome by studying five locks of his hair. The results of this research, which was supported by the American Beethoven Society and the Hugh Stuart Center Charitable Trust , and published in Current Biology , has helped them put to bed questions which have confounded historians since his death. Not only was the composer “predisposed to liver disease,” but he had also contracted Hepatitis B. In conclusion, the geneticists said his alcohol consumption “contributed to his death”.
Beethoven depicted in a book of biographies of famous composers by A. Ilinskiy in 1904. ( wowinside / Adobe Stock)
Too Bad for Beethoven, The Wine Arrived Too Late
Beethoven was a tortured genius fighting increasing deafness as he composed symphonies he would never himself hear. It has often been asserted that his addiction to wine was the “sole cause” of his death, but now it’s known he also had hepatitis B and a genetic risk of liver disease. According to a report in the Daily Mail , the genius composer enjoyed drinking so much that after receiving a gift of Rhineland wine on his deathbed, his last words were: “Too bad! Too late!”.
The new paper concluded that the composer was infected with the liver-damaging virus hepatitis B. Furthermore, he suffered a genetic predisposition to liver problems, suggesting his death from cirrhosis of the liver was not solely attributable to alcoholism. In fact, the popular theory that Beethoven became deaf because of lead poisoning, which was widely used to sweeten wine in the 19th century, has also been challenged by the results.
The study concluded that the Hiller Lock, which was used for previous research, actually belonged to a woman of Jewish Ashkenazi heritage. (William Meredith / Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, San Jose State University )
Revisiting Beethoven’s Life with Game-Changing Genetic Discoveries
The timeworn idea that the composer died solely from alcoholism was incorrectly based on a lock of hair thought to belong to the composer. But the new work demonstrates that this hair actually came from a woman of Jewish Ashkenazi heritage. Based on new genetic data gathered from modern relatives of Beethoven, sequenced as part of the new study, an illegitimate child within Beethoven’s family tree was also identified.
This pattern of marital infidelity seems to have been continued, for the new study indicates that the composer himself was born after “an illicit affair,” and that he was actually a half-brother to his sibling Kaspar. Nevertheless, the researchers said that much more research is required to prove this.
When discussing the finding, Dr. Tristan Begg who headed the research project explained that most people who do genetic testing “will find that there is nothing wrong with them, they are related to everyone they thought they were, and the results are not surprising.” In stark contrast, the new study of the composer’s hair took eight years to complete and revealed “fascinating results in every branch, from disease risk to the family tree.”
Beethoven on his deathbed in 1827. ( Public domain )
Beethoven’s Troubled Health: The Turbulent Life of a Tortured Musical Genius
The researchers found “no genetic cause” for the composer’s deafness, which began with tinnitus and loss of high frequencies in his twenties, and rendered Beethoven deaf by 1818. Neither were there any genetic signatures for the “wretched abdominal pains and bouts of diarrhea” he suffered since his early twenties.
In the summer of 1821 Beethoven suffered the first of at least two attacks of jaundice, which is a symptom of advanced liver disease. As such, cirrhosis has traditionally been believed to be the most likely cause of his death at the age of 56. Due to the results of the recent study, the researchers have identified a list of genetic risk factors for liver disease, as well as evidence of a hepatitis B infection which developed in the months before the composer’s final illness.
Beethoven died in Vienna on the 26th March 1827, aged 56, and until now his passing has been associated with alcohol abuse, hepatitis, cirrhosis and pneumonia. By making Beethoven’s genome publicly available for researchers, Begg announced his confidence in the fact that future studies of Beethoven’s samples collected over time might help to clarify when he got infected with hepatitis B. With more DNA data, the remaining questions about the famous composer’s declining health and genealogy will hopefully be answered, someday soon.
Are you related to Beethoven? Find out here.
Top image: Beethoven. Source: flint0010 / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie