Beethoven's death reevaluated with hair DNA, reveals family secret

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How a lock of Beethoven’s hair unlocked a family secret

March 30, 2023 -

Malte Boecker, Director Beethoven Haus, talks during an interview with The Associated Press in Bonn, Germany, on the sequencing project of the genome of world famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven by an international team of researchers led by Cambridge University, Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Scientists have pulled Beethoven's genome from locks of his hair to look for clues about his many health problems. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Malte Boecker, Director Beethoven Haus, talks during an interview with The Associated Press in Bonn, Germany, on the sequencing project of the genome of world famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven by an international team of researchers led by Cambridge University, Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Scientists have pulled Beethoven's genome from locks of his hair to look for clues about his many health problems. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Malte Boecker, Director Beethoven Haus, talks during an interview with The Associated Press in Bonn, Germany, on the sequencing project of the genome of world famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven by an international team of researchers led by Cambridge University, Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Scientists have pulled Beethoven's genome from locks of his hair to look for clues about his many health problems. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

As Beethoven lay dying in bed in March of 1827, friends and family sought small tokens by which they could remember the beloved composer. A not-infrequent request was for a lock of his hair. Now, nearly two hundred years later, that hair has been used to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding Beethoven’s life, death, and legacy.

Reassessing Beethoven’s death

Rumors surrounding Beethoven have been the subject of conjecture for quite some time. While we know he died fairly early of liver failure, what was the cause?

In recent decades, lead poisoning has been the presumed source of his demise, but was his supposed exposure accidental or from a more malevolent motivation?

And what of the deafness that helped make his legacy as one of history’s greatest musicians even more amazing?

Many have offered their thoughts and conjectures on these questions to varying levels of reliability, but definitive answers were still difficult to come by. So Tristan Begg, then a masters student in archaeology at the University of Tübingen in Germany and now a Ph.D. student at Cambridge, partnered with the American Beethoven Society to take a more scientific approach to studying the late composer’s life.

As Gina Kolata describes, through the Society’s connections, they gained access to eight locks of Beethoven’s hair—or at least that was the claim.

What caused Beethoven’s death?

The sample with the greatest significance at the start of the research was supposedly clipped by Ferdinand Hiller, a fifteen-year-old composer and “ardent acolyte” who was with Beethoven on several occasions before his death.

The Hiller sample was made famous by Russell Martin’s book Beethoven’s Hair in 2000 and was made into a documentary five years later. It posited that a locket containing the composer’s hair was passed down from generation to generation as a family heirloom and was the source of the lead-poisoning theory as an analysis revealed levels of lead that were one hundred times greater than normal.

However, the study by Begg and the Beethoven Society revealed that the hair had been falsely attributed. It belonged to a Jewish woman rather than the Flemish composer. Two of the other samples were found to be from other sources as well.

Still, five samples were shown to have identical DNA, with two strands claiming “impeccable chains of custody, which gave the researchers confidence that they were hair from Beethoven.”

These samples revealed the true cause of the composer’s death: hepatitis B.

It’s most likely that Beethoven contracted hepatitis B at birth, and the disease can have a devastating effect on the liver. Moreover, roughly a quarter of those who are afflicted that young end up with cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer, either of which would offer the clearest explanation for his untimely death. That diagnosis would also explain the chronic stomach issues with which he dealt throughout his life.

But how his mother came to contract the disease is another question and points to an even more startling revelation about the late composer’s lineage.

Why current Beethovens may not be related to the composer

While those behind the study set out to learn how Beethoven died, along the way they also discovered that his genes diverged quite a bit from those of his immediate family.

And though they have yet to pinpoint where that divergence took place, even during the composer’s life, rumors circulated that his father was actually Friedrich Wilhelm II or even Frederick the Great.

Beethoven did little to deny those rumors until a brief note affirming the integrity of his mother toward the end of his life, but it’s difficult to know who his real father was for certain. The break in the family line could have come at any point across seven generations, but the most likely source is either with Beethoven himself or with his father.

Either way, Kolata notes that the news came as quite a shock to those who have long claimed to be related to the famous musician.

The von Beethovens of Belgium, for example, were “shocked” to find that the man at the center of their familial identity was not actually part of their family. As Dr. Maarten Larmuseau, who co-authored the study at the heart of the revelations, describes, “They didn’t know how to react. Every day they are remembered by their special surname,” adding that their supposed relationship to the composer “is part of their identity.”

Their example reminds us why basing our identity on anything or anyone but our relationship with God can be a dangerous proposition.

A warning about where you base your identity

One of the primary factors driving much of our culture’s current disarray—and an issue increasingly pervading Christian circles as well—is the idea that we should be free to define ourselves in whatever way seems most real to us.

And while there are many problems with that idea, one of the most important is that we’re just bad at it. We pick and choose the parts about us that we like the most and make that the foundation of our lives, even when those aspects of our identity are in no way secure.

As the von Beethovens found out, even when we think that foundation is safe because it’s remained steady for the better part of two centuries, things can change. Something we thought was true turns out to be a lie and your world is shattered.

Now think how much more vulnerable we are when we base our identity on a job, skill, character trait, or other person.

God created us in his image and intended for us to see the totality of our lives through the lens of our relationship with him because he understood that was the only way to have any semblance of consistency and reliability in our identity. And while that reliability will not necessarily extend to every facet of our existence, when God and his word are our firm foundation, we can weather the storms that will invariably come our way (Matthew 7:24–27).

So how have you defined yourself today?

What is currently serving as the foundation upon which the rest of your life is built?

Scripture is clear what our answer to those questions should be.

What is yours?

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