FOR NEARLY TWO centuries since the death of Ludwig van Beethoven, the mystery behind the cause of the famed composer’s death, his debilitating ailments, and even his identity have swirled and led to many speculations. People have combed through the memoirs of those who knew Beethoven to find out more about him. Others have mined his letters and journals to investigate his medical complaints. Some have tested fragments of his skull to search for probable causes of death. In fact, the doctor who performed his autopsy, which included a craniotomy, even removed his ear bones to check if they held clues about the cause of his deafness. A few have claimed he was Black or wondered if he had liver disease, and until recently, it was widely believed that he had been poisoned, perhaps inadvertently, through medicines or wine that contained lead.
Now, we know a lot more. And the answer was found in one of Beethoven’s distinctive features—his unkempt hair.
A new paper published in Current Biology, where a team of researchers sequenced the composer’s DNA from his hair, upends long-held notions about the composer. It found that Beethoven didn’t die of lead poisoning. He most likely had Hepatitis B and died of liver cirrhosis. He was not Black. And one of his famous locks of hair, which had been the subject of a popular book and documentary, did not even belong to him but to an Ashkenazi Jewish woman. The study also hints at a dark family secret. One of the men in Beethoven’s direct paternal line was fathered by someone who was not from the Beethoven line. Many suspect this individual was probably Beethoven’s father.
When Beethoven was dying, many friends and acquaintances began to request his hair as a keepsake. We do not know if that annoyed him but he did once prank someone. He sent a woman who had made such a request a coarse snip of goat’s beard that resembled in colour and texture his own curls. He made amends when the woman learnt of the prank later by sending some of his hair. Known as the Halm-Thayer lock today, it was part of the samples analysed for this paper. Individuals, it is believed, kept taking locks of Beethoven’s hair even after his death. According to one anecdote, by the third day of his death, not a single strand of his hair remained.
Many of those locks taken by all those curious visitors are still found today in various public and private collections. The most famous among them is the Hiller lock, which is believed to have been clipped from Beethoven’s head by a friend, Ferdinand Hiller. Strands from it were the source of a popular book and documentary and the theory since it contained high levels of lead, that the composer had died of lead poisoning. The new study found that this lock belonged to an Ashkenazi Jewish woman, probably someone in the Hiller family.
In all, the researchers of this study analysed eight locks of hair from different sources. Two of these—the Hiller lock and one more—were found inauthentic, while a third could not be tested. But five of the others had identical DNA suggesting that they belonged to Beethoven.
The researchers also compared Beethoven’s Y chromosome to five men who are considered to be his modern-day relatives. These individuals are known to share a 16th-century ancestor known as Aert van Beethoven with the composer. Y chromosomes in men remain nearly identical to their fathers and are passed down through generations. While the paper found that the five van Beethovens were related to each other, a match with the composer didn’t show up, suggesting that somewhere in the seven generations between Aert and the famous composer, a woman in the family tree had a child with an unknown man and that Beethoven was a descendant of that pairing. It is speculated Beethoven’s father might have been the one born out of wedlock since his baptismal record was never found.
For all these years, it was Beethoven’s music that spoke to us. Now, we learn a little more about him, through some tufts of his hair.