2 February 2024

Engraving depicting Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

He remains, in the collective imagination, the archetype of the artist who has transmuted his suffering into musical gold. And the trials, in the life of the author of The Ode to Joy, did not miss. Raised by a brutal and alcoholic father, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) lost his beloved mother at the age of 17, and his life was punctuated by a litany of health problems. In addition to his famous deafness, which began around the age of 28 to become total between the ages of 45 and 48, the composer regularly complained of abdominal pain and suffered from depressive disorders.

Nearly two centuries after his premature death at the age of 56, the causes of Beethoven’s deafness and those of his death are still debated. Many hypotheses have been put forward: hepatic cirrhosis, syphilis, acute hepatitis, Paget’s disease (a bone pathology which notably leads to deformations of the skull)… Not to mention his immoderate penchant for wine and possible chronic lead poisoning, or lead poisoning, possibly related to this alcoholism. The cheap wine of the time, in fact, was often cut with lead to give it a sweet flavor – however, Beethoven particularly appreciated the wines of Hungary, which were often adulterated.

A new study, published on March 22 in the journal Current Biology, made the DNA of the man who knew so well how to make the piano sing speak. An international team has deciphered the human genome extracted from eight locks of hair believed to come from the composer’s skull, and from public and private collections. The study was coordinated by Johannes Krause, of the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (Germany), a laboratory experienced in methods capable of reading ancient DNA.

“Stumpff’s Wick”

“Hair is a relevant material for examining the genetic causes of various diseases, recalls Jean-François Deleuze, director of the CEA’s national human genomics research centre. It is still necessary to ensure that the wicks analyzed are indeed authentic. »

And this is the first surprise. Of the eight locks examined, the authors only authenticated five, all taken during the last seven years of the musician’s life. The closest link has been found between the DNA of the “wick of Stumpff” (belonging to a private collector) and the DNA of people of known German descent from the Beethoven family, and living today in North Rhine-Westphalia.

And the other three locks? The DNA of one was not usable. As for the other two, their genome does not correspond to the same individual as the five authenticated locks. The “Hiller lock”, in particular, allegedly taken from Beethoven’s deathbed by a young admirer and then passed from hand to hand, actually belonged to a woman. This invalidates the conclusions of a study which had detected there, in 2000, lead levels a hundred times higher than normal, which could have explained the artist’s deafness.

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