Ludwig van Beethoven was a German composer and pianist.

Beethoven is still regarded as one of the most revered musicians in Western music history; his compositions are among the most often performed in the classical music repertoire and mark the change from the Classical to the Romantic periods.

The artist and his work are legendary, and what makes it even more amazing is that Beethoven started facing hearing issues in 1801. By 1814, he was almost deaf. That made him isolate himself. But it was in the loneliness that he composed many of the most admired pieces.

He was bedridden with illness for a few months before his death, which led to his demise in 1827. However, no exact reason for the composer’s death was found. Recent studies have managed to solve this mystery though.

The latest studies on Beethoven’s hair strands have resolved the question of his cause of death.

The Study Of Beethoven’s Death

Initially, no known cause of his death was known. However, there were several proposed theories about his passing cause. Alcoholic cirrhosis, syphilis, infectious hepatitis, lead poisoning, sarcoidosis, and Whipple’s disease had all been proposed.

However, recent studies have cleared this confusion. On his deathbed, Beethoven was visited by many. A few of these visitors chose to retain the dead man’s locks. One of the many ways the duo- Hüttenbrenner and Hiller.

Beethoven

The hair retained was obtained by researchers at the University of Cambridge, UK. They have worked upon them to produce this precious information. Tristan Begg, an ancient-genome researcher at the university, and his colleagues extracted genetic material from the preserved lock.

Previous attempts to obtain the composer’s genetic material from hair or skull fragments have been unsuccessful. But the most recent study was made possible by technological developments over the previous two decades in techniques for reading DNA from centuries-old, degraded samples.

Beethoven’s cause of hearing loss still couldn’t be traced, unfortunately. However, studies reveal that the composer most likely passed away from liver disease brought on by alcohol and a combination of other factors. The study is published this week in Current Biology.

Begg put eight of Beethoven’s supposed locks to the test. The five of them were identical and were thought to be real samples of the composer’s hair since they matched each other.

To search for known disease-causing genetic sequences, the scientists first extracted genetic material from one sample, creating a sequence that covered around two-thirds of the genome.

Walther Parson, a forensic molecular biologist at the Medical University of Innsbruck in Austria who has worked on other ancient cases, calls the work “a great technological achievement.”

It is difficult to extract valuable genetic material from such aged hair. Christian Reiter, a forensic medical expert at the Medical University of Vienna who authenticated a fragment of Beethoven’s cranium in 2022, claims that “the acquisition of the sample material alone is admirable.”

The Cause of Betthoven’s Demise

According to the most recent research, Beethoven most likely passed away from liver illness brought on by a confluence of viral hepatitis, alcohol consumption, and genetic predispositions. Begg claims that “a perfect storm” occurred.

Beethoven had two copies of a specific version of the gene PNPLA3, which has been connected to liver cirrhosis, according to the DNA analysis. Additionally, he carried two single-copy variations of the HFE gene that lead to hereditary hemochromatosis, a liver-damaging disorder.

Beethoven

Given that historical accounts imply Beethoven was a strong drinker, particularly in the year before his death, which would have substantially raised his risk of liver damage, Begg says, “Those are really significant.”

The DNA obtained from the composer’s hair after his death also included little pieces of the hepatitis B virus, which can harm the liver. We don’t know how or when he contracted it, adds Begg, who believes Beethoven had a long-term infection that was reactivated in the months before his passing.

The results are consistent with historical descriptions of Beethoven’s passing. The composer’s condition drastically declined in December 1826. His limbs swelled and he developed jaundice, both symptoms of liver failure. He went to sleep and stayed there till his passing in March 1827.

The hair study suggests multiple different probable causes of liver cirrhosis, as stated by Ian Gilmore, a liver expert at the University of Liverpool in the UK, and “the truth probably lies in the interaction between several of these.”

The Reason for The Composer’s Deafness

Beethoven’s hearing loss has an unknown reason. Begg and his associates examined the composer’s DNA for many illnesses like Paget’s disease and lupus that have been linked to hearing loss.

Begg doesn’t believe that Beethoven’s deafness was caused by lupus, even though the condition is uncommon and doesn’t necessarily result in hearing loss, although Beethoven had several genetic markers suggesting an increased chance of getting it.

Beethoven's Grave

According to Parson, “Medical genetics struggles with the same issues in patients who are alive today. The information needed to understand a disease’s causes is not all contained in the DNA sequence.”

Researchers in the field of medicine have hypothesized that Beethoven’s hearing loss may have been caused by otosclerosis, a disorder in which the stapes, a small ear bone, combine with other components of the ear.

Although this remains a possibility because the hereditary reasons for otosclerosis have not been discovered, the data cannot support the notion. Begg said the group might examine Beethoven’s genome if genetic connections are discovered in the future.

According to Parson, now that Beethoven’s genetic information is known to the public, it will likely inspire curious bystanders to look into the matter further and consider whether they may be connected to the famous musician. According to him, “like all good stories, it leaves us with more questions than answers.”

Conclusion

Advanced studies have brought forward enough research material that has helped scientists to deduce the cause of composer Beethoven’s death. His fatality factor was yet unknown even though a lot of theories were proposed.

Recent studies performed on a lock of his retained hair have shown traces of some viruses and DNA genes that might be responsible for liver damage. Given his alcoholic habits and medical conditions in his last days, it is safe to say that he died of liver failure.

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