Beethoven’s DNA has been sequenced from a lock of his hair. That, alone, is amazing news – but that’s just the beginning!
The scientific paper was released this week, and the news media is awash with the unexpected surprises that Beethoven’s DNA has revealed for us. Better yet, his DNA is in the FamilyTreeDNA database and you just might match. Are you related to Beethoven?
His Y-DNA, mitochondrial DNA and autosomal DNA have been recovered and are available for matching.
You can check your autosomal results if you’ve taken a Family Finder test, or you can upload your DNA file from either AncestryDNA, 23andMe or MyHeritage to find out if you match Beethoven. Here are the download/upload instructions for each company.
But first, let’s talk about this amazing sequence of events (pardon the pun) and scientific discoveries!
Beethoven’s Genome is Sequenced
Everyone knows the famous, genius composer, Ludwig van Beethoven. He was born in 1770 in Bonn on the banks of the Rhine River and died in 1827 in Vienna. You can listen to a snippet of his music, here.
We are all about to know him even better.
Yesterday, amid much media fanfare and a press release, the genome and related findings about Beethoven were released by a team of renowned scientists in a collaborative effort. Research partners include the University of Cambridge, the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, the American Beethoven Society, KU Leuven, the University Hospital Bonn, the University of Bonn, the Beethoven-Haus Bonn, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and FamilyTreeDNA. I want to congratulate all of these amazing scientists for brilliant work.
Beethoven’s Hair Revelations
In the past, we were unable to retrieve viable DNA from hair, but advances have changed that in certain settings. If you’re eyeing grandma’s hair wreath – the answer is “not yet” for consumer testing. Just continue to protect and preserve your family heirlooms as described in this article.
Thankfully, Beethoven participated in the Victorian custom of giving locks of hair as mementos. Eight different locks of hair attributed to Beethoven were analyzed, with five being deemed authentic and one inconclusive. Those locks provided enough DNA to obtain a great deal of different types of information.
Beethoven’s whole genome was sequenced to a 24X coverage level, meaning the researchers were able to obtain 24 good reads of his DNA, providing a high level of confidence in the accuracy of the sequencing results.
What Was Discovered?
Perhaps the most interesting discovery, at least to genealogists, is that someplace in Beethoven’s direct paternal lineage, meaning his Y-DNA, a non-paternal event (NPE) occurred. The paper’s primary authors referred to this as an “extra-pair-paternity event” but I’ve never heard that term before.
Based on testing of other family members, that event occurred sometime between roughly 1572 and Ludwig’s conception in 1770. The reported lack of a baptismal record had already raised red flags with researchers relative to Beethoven’s paternity, but there is nothing to suggest where in the five generations prior to Ludwig von Beethoven that genetic break occurred. Perhaps testing additional people in the future will provide more specificity.
We also discovered that Beethoven was genetically predisposed to liver disease. He was plagued with jaundice and other liver-related issues for much of his later life.
Beethoven, prior to his death, left a handwritten directive asking his physicians to describe and publicize his health issues which included progressive hearing loss to the point of deafness, persistent gastrointestinal problems and severe liver issues that eventually resulted in his death. Cirrhosis of the liver was widely believed to be his cause of death.
In addition, DNA in the hair revealed that Beethoven had contracted Hepatitis B, which also affects the liver.
The combination of genetic predisposition to liver disease, Hepatitis B and heavy alcohol use probably sealed his fate.
Additional health issues that Beethoven experienced are described in the paper, published in Current Biology.
It’s quite interesting that during this analysis the team devised a method to use triangulated segments that they mapped to various geographic locations, as illustrated above in a graphic from the paper. Fascinating work!!!
As a partner in this research, Cambridge University created a beautiful website, including a video which you can watch, here.
Beethoven’s Later Years
This portrait of Beethoven was painted in 1820 just 7 years before his death, at 56 years of age. By this time, he had been completely deaf for several years, had stopped performing and appearing in public. Ironically, he still continued to compose, but was horribly frustrated and discouraged, even contemplating suicide. I can’t even fathom the depths of despair for a person with his musical genius to become deaf, slowly, like slow torture.
His personal life didn’t fare much better. In 1812, he wrote this impassioned love letter to his “Immortal Beloved” whose identity has never been revealed, if it was ever known by anyone other than Beethoven himself. The letter was never sent, which is why we have it today.
FamilyTreeDNA, one of the research partners published a blog article, here.
The FamilyTreeDNA research team not only probed Beethoven’s genealogy, they tested people whose DNA should have matched, but as it turns out, did not.
Beethoven’s mitochondrial DNA haplogroup is H1b1+16,362C, plus a private mutation at C16,176T. Perhaps in the future, Beethoven’s additional private mutation will become a new haplogroup if other members of this haplogroup have it as well. If you have tested your mitochondrial DNA, check and see if Beethoven is on your match list. If you haven’t tested, now’s a great time.
According to the academic paper, Beethoven’s Y-DNA haplogroup is I-Z139, but when viewing Figure 5 in the paper, here, I noticed that Beethoven’s detailed haplogroup is given as I-FT396000, which you can see in the Discover project, here.
Viewing the Time Tree and the Suggested Projects, I noticed that there are four men with that haplogroup, some of whom are from Germany.
The ancestor’s surnames of the I-FT396000 men, as provided in public projects include:
- Pitzschke (from Germany)
- Hartmann (from Germany)
- Schauer (from Germany)
If your Y-DNA matches Beethoven at any level, you might want to upgrade if you haven’t taken the Big Y-700 test. It would be very interesting to see when and where your most recent common ancestor with Beethoven lived. You just never known – if you match Beethoven, your known ancestry might help unravel the mystery of Beethoven’s unknown paternal lineage.
Beethoven’s DNA is in the FamilyTreeDNA database for matching, including Y-DNA mitochondrial and autosomal results, so you just might match. Take a look! A surprise just might be waiting for you.
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Fascinating ! Beethoven had Dutch/Flemish origins, marked by the “van” and “hoven” in his name, the latter being the plural of hof, the Durch word for court /garden. From Wikipedia: “Beethoven was the grandson of Ludwig van Beethoven, a musician from the town of Mechelen in the Austrian Duchy of Brabant (in what is now the Flemish region of Belgium) who had moved to Bonn at the age of 21.” Now with this study, his DNA link to this grandfather is open to question.
I wonder how van Noy may relate?
You do know that’s absolutely the first thing I checked, right:)
Hi Roberta, thanks as always for your enjoyable posts. Just a small correction to offer: your 2 terminal SNP references don’t match. I suspect the 2nd reference is the incorrect one, as I-FT960000 isn’t found in the Discover tool.
It’s at this link: https://discover.familytreedna.com/y-dna/I-FT396000/story
I would love to talk with you about Ydna and genetic distance.
Roberta, thanks once more for this timely article. Just yesterday I was thinking of writing you wit a question on a similar subject.
I am encouraged by the reseach teams’ ability to extract Beethoven’s genome from hair samples. Though still not viable for immediate usage in sonsumer level DNA testing, this story does give me hope for a future when consumer level DNA testing of ancestral samples is possible.
The question I want to ask you is (academically speaking), in a future time when DNA testing of ancestral samples is common place, if you have a sample from an ancestor, but you don’t know exactly which ancestor it is, are you better testing for MtDNA or AsDNA in order to confirm the sample’s ancestor identity? My thought is to test the MtDNA, but I’m open to other suggestions.
My question stems from this past week, while going through boxes of my parents estate files and keepsakes. Among those boxes is one box that contains materials from my father’s parents, which includes genetic material belonging one or the other (or both) of my father’s parents, but I can not be certain of which grandparent the individual DNA items belong to.
Since I was fortunate enough to have fully tested my father before he died, ( Big-Y, FMS, and Autosomal) I am assuming that at some future time, if/when testing is available for these samples, then FMS would be the best initial test in order to discern which of my paternal grandparents each sample belonged to.
This is a bit of a long-winded question, but I would like to get you thoughts on this question.
Great question. The short answer is that I would have a whole genome done so you get “everything” possible. In your case, you’re fortunate to have some level of previous information. Still, I’d do the whole genome eventually because then you’ll be able to look at traits, medical and other information as it become known.
Thanks for your insight. Previously I haven’t considered whole genome testing because my concentration has been only on the genealogical aspects of DNA testing.
Thank you for the announcement. Seems my wife’s patrilineal line is connected to Ludwig thru a common male ancestor who lived about 4,600 years ago.
Just checked my FTDNA account and discovered cousin Van was now listed, but we shared a common ancestor a fair while ago, like around 2200 BCE. Of the other connections Geoffrey de Mandeville, George Soule, and Neandertal Man are the only ones who interest me. In the spiel on Soule: “George’s father may have been Johannes Sol, a printer in Leiden who died suddenly, possibly while helping William Brewster.” A few years ago a descendant of Mayflower Brewster emailed me about one of my STRs-DYS19=16- he also had that mutation, but his haplogroup was R something I think, certainly not I1-Z138* (mine is I-A6548). My correspondent had tracked down that the mutation occurred at a certain period of time because he had tested descendants of the mutated, and descendant relatives from before. I have misplaced the emails when my mail server crashed during a backup. Never been able to restore the backup.
She also has Faulkner and Robert E. Lee.
“You can listen to a snipped of his music,”
should be “snippet”
Having come to this story after canine concerns, my first thought was of a certain St Bernard. Never mind. The composer was my first musical hero, so I like him too.
Those inspired to get a lock of an ancestor’s hair tested should note the following: 1) DON’T handle the lock of hair, or you will contaminate the sample. If you have to, use a fresh pair of plastic or latex gloves, or clean tweezers, and even then, handle as little as possible. 2) It’s really hard to sample and analyse such samples, so you will need a lab that knows how to do this. And you will have to pay much more than the usual fee for this extra care and expertise.
“The Genetic Strand” by Edward Ball is available online as an example of someone who tested locks of hair found from several ancestors.
This also raises 3) It often does not work.
One of the kits I manage is a YDNA 12 full match with Beethoven. Now my question is, is there a FTDNA group or a similiar place for exchanging information with other Beethoven matches? If enough of us YDNA matches are sharing our trees, then mystery of Beethoven’s NPE should be quite solvable.
Not yet but maybe shortly.
Jan van Beethoven represent the break in patriliny. An uncle sibling close kin but NO relationship to von Beethoven in Johan’s history.
Hi. I don’t match Beethoven. Like Beethoven, I’m deaf (but not a musical genius). However, I might be a remote descendant of Martin Luther, born in 1483, thanks to a couple of matches on My Heritage.
Thanks for posting his mitochondrial DNA haplogroup! FTDNA sent me an email today with a teaser about maybe matching, even though they know I’m a T2b5. Nowhere in the email did they say they already knew Beethoven was an H1b1 . . .