Beethoven’s DNA reveals one of his ancestors had an affair

Ludwig van Beethoven - Beethoven-Haus Bonn
Ludwig van Beethoven - Beethoven-Haus Bonn

The paternity of Ludwig van Beethoven sparked intrigue in his lifetime, with some publications even claiming he was the illegitimate son of the King of Prussia.

Now, a team of international scientists, including the University of Cambridge, has sequenced the genome of the German composer and discovered there really was a break in his paternal line.

The new study suggests an “extra-marital” event occurred between the conception of Hendrik van Beethoven in Kampenhout, Belgium around 1572, and the conception of Ludwig van Beethoven seven generations later in 1770, in Bonn, Germany.

It means that the composer was not a legitimate “Beethoven” although experts say it is impossible to tell in which generation the break occurred.

An earlier doubt had been raised about the true paternity of Beethoven’s father, because his baptismal record is missing. It could mean that his musical genius came from a source that is lost to history.

Beethoven did little to contradict doubts

“Through the combination of DNA data and archival documents, we were able to observe a discrepancy between Ludwig van Beethoven’s legal and biological genealogy,” said Maarten Larmuseau, professor of human genetic biology, at KU Leuven in Belgium.

Throughout Beethoven’s life there was doubt cast on his true heritage, a rumour that the composer did little to contradict.

“My nature shows that I do not belong among this plebeian mass,” he once wrote in a conversation book, through which the deaf composer communicated with those around him.

The German encyclopaedia Konversations-Lexikon named his father as Frederick the Great, while a dictionary of musicians published in France said he was the son of Friedrich Wilhelm II, both Kings of Prussia.

Beethoven only denied the rumours at the end of his life after a childhood friend, Franz Wegeler, sent a letter chastising him for failing to defend the honour of his mother.

The composer replied saying: “Make known to the world the integrity of my parents, and especially of my mother.”

Genetic predisposition to liver disease

But the new study shows that there could have been a scandalous episode that was even unknown to Beethoven himself.

Scientists were able to study his DNA after finding five locks of his hair dating from the seven years before his death from cirrhosis, aged 56, in 1827.

They also found he had a genetic predisposition to liver disease and had been infected with Hepatitis B, which combined with his excessive alcohol consumption, may have led to his death.

Lead author, Tristan Begg, a doctoral student, from the University of Cambridge, said: “We can surmise from Beethoven’s ‘conversation books’, which he used during the last decade of his life, that his alcohol consumption was very regular, although it is difficult to estimate the volumes being consumed.

“While most of his contemporaries claim his consumption was moderate by early 19th-century Viennese standards, there is not complete agreement among these sources, and this still likely amounted to quantities of alcohol known today to be harmful to the liver.

“If his alcohol consumption was sufficiently heavy over a long enough period of time, the interaction with his genetic risk factors presents one possible explanation for his cirrhosis.”

No genetic explanation for hearing loss

However they found no genetic explanation for the hearing loss that the composer suffered from his mid-20s, which would eventually leave him functionally deaf by 1818.

Dr Axel Schmidt, of the Institute of Human Genetics at the University Hospital of Bonn, said: “Although a clear genetic underpinning for Beethoven’s hearing loss could not be identified, the scientists caution that such a scenario cannot be strictly ruled out.

“Reference data, which are mandatory to interpret individual genomes, are steadily improving. It is therefore possible that Beethoven’s genome will reveal hints for the cause of his hearing loss in the future.”

The team were also unable to find a genetic explanation for the gastrointestinal complaints, which plagued the composer in his latter years, but the researchers said that coeliac disease or lactose intolerance are highly unlikely based on the genomic data.

The study was published in the journal Current Biology.