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Unlocking the code to Beethoven's life through his hair

Gaby Reucher
March 30, 2023

What did Beethoven die of? What hereditary diseases did he carry? Beethoven's hair reveals a lot, but by no means everything. One lock that was supposed to be his was actually from a woman.

The Viennese Beethoven Monument
Beethoven statues exist in Vienna (above), where he lived most of his adult life, and Bonn, where he was bornImage: Willfried Gredler-Oxenbauer/picture alliance

Ludwig van Beethoven: A musical genius, but socially a curmudgeon. When the composer wrote his famous  Ninth Symphony, he was already deaf. He was plagued by many illnesses.

As a result, he had requested a post-mortem autopsy in order to research his ailments.

In 2014, an international team of researchers started working on sequencing Beethoven's genome for more clues into his condition. When their new findings through DNA analyses of Beethoven's hair were recently published, the media eagerly jumped on the story offering more insight into the life of the famous classical composer.

DNA from Beethoven's hair yields clues to what made him ill

One of the findings concluded that Beethoven had the liver disease hepatitis B. This solved the mystery of his death, some media reports argued. Other articles noted that Beethoven might not be genetically a Beethoven at all.

In short, the findings were turning Beethoven's biography upside down.

But even though the results are astounding, researchers have not reached the same conclusions as the media — or at least not with the same conviction.

An original lock of world famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven placed in a gift box, that was a popular collectible in the 19th century, is seen at the Beethoven Haus in Bonn, Germany
An original Beethoven lock was a popular collectible in the 19th century. This one is kept at the Beethoven Haus in Bonn, where the world famous composer was born.Image: Martin Meissne/AP Photo/picture alliance

Combing through history

Christine Siegert, head of the Beethoven Archive in Bonn, Germany, and a colleague have gathered the historical background for the research team.

The story about Beethoven's locks of hair, which provided the DNA, played a major role. There are still 32 known examples of the locks worldwide.

"The culture of remembrance was very different in the 19th century than it is today, when everyone can take selfies," Siegert told DW. "Back then, people liked to give away locks of hair as friendship gifts."

Christine Siegert smiles, sitting at a table with an open book and a shelf of ancient books.
Christine Siegert, archive director of the Beethoven HouseImage: Privat

The researchers had eight such locks at their disposal, five of which showed matching DNA. One of the locks of hair was contributed by the Beethoven Museum in Bonn. The house where he was born in 1770 is now a museum and archive, where scholars have kept examining the composer's legacy since his death in 1827. 

Beethoven's coveted strands

"Our curl has a good provenance and it is very likely that it is authentic," says Siegert.

Beethoven gave the curl to the Streicher family of piano makers in 1820 while he was still alive.

One account by Gerhard von Breuning, the son of Beethoven's close childhood friend Stefan von Breuning, demonstrates how popular the practice of collecting locks was. When Beethoven was laid out in an open coffin after his death, many fans came and cut a lock from his hair. Siegert says that Breuning was too late to get his own: "When he arrived, Beethoven had already had all his hair cut off. He had no more hair on his head."

It is not possible to say with absolute certainty that the hair used to sequence the DNA is authentic, Siegert says. After all, she says, there was a buoyant trade after Beethoven's death, including in alleged Beethoven hair. "Historical research is always an approximation," says the musicologist.

The Beethoven monument in Bonn.
The Beethoven monument in BonnImage: Oliver Berg/dpa/picture alliance

'Hiller' curl not Beethoven's

One of the eight curls examined, the famous "Hiller curl" — long firmly believed to be Beethoven's after Ferdinand von Hiller was allowed to take it from the body the day after the composer's death — turned out to be woman's hair after the latest DNA analysis, to the surprise of the researchers. In 2007, a high lead content had been detected in said curl and it was wrongly assumed that Beethoven had died of syphilis — a disease that was treated with lead-containing medicine at the time.

The new analyses, which also looked for pathogens, were able to detect hepatitis B. Beethoven had repeatedly complained of back pains, and his DNA shows that he was susceptible to liver disease. Whether Beethoven ultimately died from his hepatitis, however, cannot be proven.

The idea for the research project came from Tristan Bregg, who had worked for the Beethoven Center in California. Three of the hair samples studied came from there, but only one of them was among the five that showed matches in DNA.

This undated image shows hair that's allegedly from German composer Ludwig van Beethoven in a laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in Jena, Germany
Beethoven's hair has been studied at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human HistoryImage: ANTHI TILIAKOU/AFP

The decoding of Beethoven's DNA

As a master's student, Bregg was able to enlist Professor for Archaeogenetics Johannes Krause in his idea. Krause specializes in analyzing historical DNA at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Bregg then earned his doctorate in archaeology at Clare Hall College at the University of Cambridge in the UK, where he conducted research on Beethoven's DNA. It took eight years until the results of the international research team could now be published in the scientific journal Current Biology.

Professor Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany
Johannes Krause, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and his team contributed to the study of Beethoven's genomeImage: Thomas Victor

"We had to bring in cooperation partners with different expertise," Krause explained to DW. For example, a medical geneticist from the University of Bonn, where people are familiar with complex diseases. "Then we brought in genealogists from Belgium, who studied Beethoven's family tree to identify possible relatives."

They uncovered another surprise. Comparing the DNA of the "Beethovens" living in Belgium today, they found that they were related to each other, but there was no DNA from the composer. "We were surprised by this family secret, which shows that Beethoven was not genetically descended from the Flemish Beethoven line, but we don't know which generation is responsible," Begg explains in a separate YouTube video.

What ultimately moved the research forward were the high-quality machines that could decode Beethoven's genome, the blueprint for the human that resides in every cell. "Fifteen years ago, sequencing machines decoded about 100 to 200 DNA sequences per day, and today we have machines that can decode 20 billion DNA sequences per day," says Krause.

A scientist examines the Moscheles Lock, believed to be Beethoven's hair, in a laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Researchers were careful not to contaminate the precious hair samplesImage: SUSANNA SABIN/UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE

Usually, old bones serve as the basis for analysis, but that was not possible with Beethoven. "You could have exhumed Beethoven to perform such a genetic analysis with his bones," Krause says. "We approached the Central Cemetery in Vienna, but they decided against supporting the project."

To decode Beethoven's genome, the researchers needed larger amounts of hair. Fortunately, Australian Kevin Brown possessed a suitable clump. "The lock offered itself because it had a relatively large amount of hair and the owner of this lock said that he was happy to sacrifice the hair for the research," Krause says. To get the DNA, the hair had to be dissolved, which means the collector's lock would no longer exist.

Nothing can be proven

The archive in the Beethoven Museum was able to keep some of its curls and continues to keep them under lock and key. Christine Siegert of the Beethoven Archive in Bonn doubts that the biographies on Beethoven will have to be rewritten according to the latest findings.

"People will include that in future publications. And it's also interesting for medical historians," she says. But nothing can be proven, she adds, because even the five matching hair samples could hypothetically not be Beethoven's. "If at some point we find out what happened, we will include that in our biographical writings."

For Johannes Krause, however, the project is over for the time being — even though there's no shortage of alleged Beethoven hair. Since the publication of the results, Krause has already been offered three more hair samples that are supposed to be from Beethoven for research purposes.

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This article was originally written in German and adapted by John Silk.

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