Beethoven: What a lock of hair reveals about the suffering of the composer

Dhe ears rang and roared, he was also plagued by colic and jaundice: Ludwig van Beethoven was not a healthy man. The celebrated composer died in Vienna on March 26, 1827 at the age of 56, leaving behind the enigma of his progressive deafness, which had begun around the age of 27 and had driven him to the brink of despair.

The team led by Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig has now published the results in the journal Current Biology.

WORLD: Beethoven’s body was autopsied the day after his death, and the bones were taken out of the grave twice and examined. Why did you take hair samples that are almost 200 years old?

John Krause: It has not been known for long, but DNA can also be found in hair, not only in the hair roots. However, we still had to refine the techniques because the genetic information was very fragmented and often only around 25 base pairs long. If you want to put together a complete genome with about three billion base pairs, the “mapping” is quite complex. The project dragged on for eight years.

WORLD: In the current study, you and your colleagues write that a number of Beethoven locks are kept in museums and private collections. Some he sent himself during his lifetime, others were even cut off on his deathbed. Isn’t that a bit macabre?

frill: For us yes, it was quite common back then. On the one hand as a sign of reverence, if you wore a lock of hair in an amulet, on the other hand as mourning jewelry. My family still has braided hair accessories from my great-grandmother.

World: And yet you would hardly analyze this hair. Why Beethoven now?

frill: The idea came from the first author of our study, Tristan Begg, who through previous research had access to several curls in an American museum. Since Beethoven asked his personal physician to describe his illnesses in letters to his brothers, we understood it as a duty to get to the bottom of the causes of his illnesses.

WORLD: You mean the documents from 1802, which are known today as the “Heiligenstätter Testament”. In it Beethoven also wrote: “What humiliation when someone stood next to me and heard a flute from afar and I heard nothing or heard someone singing the shepherd and I heard nothing either: Such events brought me close to despair, it was little, and I ended my life myself – only art held me back.”

frill: Exactly, so he wanted his suffering to be clarified, which we interpret as approval of our genetic analyses. And we got permission from three ethics committees to get samples from five relatives. In addition to geneticists, other musicologists were also involved in the project, who delved very deeply and, for example, meticulously checked the origin of the various samples.

6_Stumpff Lock in the lab_Image credit_Anthi Tiliakou

The blunt curl was examined in the laboratory

Source: Anthi Tiliakou

WORLD: How many curls did you examine?

frill: There were eight in all, including one woman, as it turned out. However, there is a very high probability that five samples came from the same person, and the so-called stump curl was best suited for our analyses.

WORLD: And this person is identical to Ludwig van Beethoven?

frill: We’re pretty sure. The color fits, there is brown, partly gray hair. And it would be very difficult to forge the accompanying letters or other evidence, especially as it would require breaking into various museums and safes and changing the curls accordingly. The genetic information also matches the history and origin of his family.

WORLD: You can even read the origin from the DNA sequences?

frill: We were able to do this through comparisons, in that we were able to use the database of a company that creates commercial genetic analyzes and ancestral lines and can now draw on an enormous number of sequences.

WORLD: They also encountered a surprising inconsistency.

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frill: In fact, the paternal line seems to be broken in the Ludwig van Beethoven branch when one follows the family tree over seven generations. I can’t say whether it was my own biological father, i.e. my mother cheated on me, or whether the break-up happened earlier; Musicologists speculate about it.

WORLD: Were you able to find the causes of the abdominal pain in the genetic material, which Beethoven often complained about and which has already been described as irritable bowel syndrome?

frill: No. While we can rule out both celiac disease, i.e. gluten hypersensitivity, and lactose intolerance, we found no genetic explanation for his colic and diarrhea. But instead we discovered a predisposition to liver disease.

WORLD: Heavy alcohol consumption is also documented, are these the reasons for his jaundice?

frill: Not only. We were also able to prove a hepatitis B infection. Viral particles are trapped in patients’ hair, as has recently been discovered, and we have indeed been able to detect them in our samples. Together with the genetic predisposition and excessive alcohol consumption, this probably led to liver cirrhosis.

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WORLD: Also the deafness of the composer was already on infectious diseases returned, about one syphilis. Did you find any clues or another reason for this?

frill: Unfortunately, we only had hair and no bones, which would have been more revealing. In the genome from the hair we found no genetic explanation as to why Beethoven gradually lost his hearing.

WORLD: Do you like listening to Beethoven yourself?

frill: I prefer Dvořák, Prokovyev or Tchaikovsky.

Professor Johannes Krause

John Krause

Source: Thomas Victor

WORLD: Will you continue to delve into Beethoven’s legacy or tackle other celebrities’ hair?

frill: For me the project is complete. I’ve been offered curls by Elvis or Marilyn Monroe, but I don’t agree, as in the case of Beethoven. Other exciting projects on human evolution and history are also underway at our institute.

To person

Johannes Krause is Director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. In his research, the biochemist deals with genetic analysisn ancient DNA, historical pathogens and epidemics, and human evolution.

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