Locks Of Hair Of The Greatest Composer Who Ever Lived Give Clues To His Death
Alfredo Panicucci/Mondadori via Getty Images

Using authentic locks of hair from the head of the man often acknowledged as the greatest composer who ever lived, scientists have offered a new perspective on what led to the death of Ludwig Van Beethoven.

In Beethoven’s famed Heiligenstadt Testament, written in 1802, when he was 32, Beethoven acknowledged he was beginning to lose his hearing, and that only composing music kept him from committing suicide. He also instructed his favorite physician, Dr. Johann Adam Schmidt, to describe after Beethoven’s death the disease from which he died. Ironically, Schmidt died in 1809; Beethoven lived until 1827.

Beethoven not only suffered progressive hearing loss that would render him completely deaf (making his music one of the most astonishing creations in the history of mankind) but also chronic gastrointestinal problems and ultimately liver disease; his death has been ascribed to cirrhosis. The scientists aver that Beethoven inherited a “considerable genetic predisposition for liver disease.”

Strands of hair from eight locks named the Müller, Bermann, Halm-Thayer, Moscheles, Stumpff, Cramolini-Brown, Hiller, and Kessler Locks were examined; sequence data showed that the Hiller lock actually originated from a woman; the Cramolini-Brown was “almost certainly inauthentic,” and the Kessler Lock lacked sufficient DNA preservation and therefore was unable to be authenticated.

Noting that “in the overwhelming majority of cases worldwide, cirrhosis of the liver can be attributed to the effects of alcohol or infections by the hepatitis B virus (HBV) or the hepatitis C virus (HCV),” the scientists posit that Beethoven had an HBV infection in the months leading to his death, but were unsure whether he had contracted it as a child or if it occurred prior to his death.

“It (HBV) may cause chronic infections (especially when contracted during childhood), which result in liver complications after decades in a large proportion of cases,” the scientists noted.

“Only hairs from the Stumpff Lock were proven positive for HBV, plausibly spanning a period of growth no later than the summer to winter of 1826, and likely earlier. However, owing to differential sequencing efforts between the four samples tested and random fluctuations in HBV viremia, the absence of detection in older samples does not necessarily imply that the infection was acquired toward the end of Beethoven’s life,” they conclude.

Beethoven’s discovery of his growing deafness came at roughly the same time as he was composing his Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” which famed musicologist Paul Henry Lang described as the “one of the incomprehensible deeds in arts and letters, the greatest single step made by an individual in the history of the symphony and in the history of music in general.”

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