A Musical Mystery Unraveled: The Unexpected Truth About Beethoven's Family Tree

Curious about Beethoven's genetic secrets? Neither were we at CRI Genetics, but here we are to spill the beans...

Ludwig van Beethoven’s relationship with his father has always been known to be far from perfect.

Beethoven was born into an already successful musical family. He wasn’t even the “original” Ludvig van Beethoven in his family! His grandfather was also a well-respected musician named Ludvig van Beethoven.

Beethoven’s father, Johann van Beethoven, was a tenor singer and a court musician. From early in Beethoven’s life, his father applied pressure to live up to (and exceed) the family reputation.

Johann van Beethoven recognized Ludwig's musical talent early on and sought to capitalize on it, often with harsh methods. He provided Ludwig with his first music lessons, teaching him the violin and piano.

Providing pressure to succeed is one thing, but Johann van Beethoven was also a known alcoholic and abusive parent. As Ludwig's abilities grew, Johann intensified the training, often pushing Ludwig to practice for long hours and punishing him if he did not meet expectations.

Despite these hardships, Beethoven's talent flourished. At the age of 10, he became a pupil of the composer Christian Gottlob Neefe, who introduced him to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and other prominent composers. By the time he was 17, Beethoven had already composed several works and had become the assistant organist at the Bonn court.

Beethoven's childhood experiences, both the challenges and the opportunities, played a significant role in shaping his character and his music. His perseverance and determination to succeed, even in the face of adversity, would become hallmarks of his life and his work as a composer.

Now, about that unexpected truth in Beethoven’s DNA…

A recent study conducted by researchers at Cambridge University and the Max Planck Institute, published in Current Biology, analyzed Ludwig van Beethoven’s DNA and compared it to known living descendants of Aert van Beethoven, a common paternal ancestor who lived a few generations before Ludvig.

Before we even get to the surprise in Beethoven’s DNA, let’s talk about HOW the researchers got his DNA… Because it’s weird.

The researchers got Beethoven’s DNA from his hair. No, they didn’t dig him up. They didn’t need to because he gave locks of his hair to his friends as gifts.

Told you it was weird…

Why did he give his friends his hair as gifts? Well, apparently his friends asked for it. When Beethoven lie on his deathbed, friends came to visit him. During these visits, they asked him for locks of his hair to remember him by.

It’s still pretty weird, but it made for convenient access to Beethoven’s DNA. The gifted locks have a well-documented paper trail in history and some have even been auctioned over the years.

Now, you’re pretty smart, so I’m sure you can guess what big “unexpected truth” was discovered when Ludwig van Beethoven’s DNA was compared to living descendants of Aert van Beethoven…

Beethoven was not really a Beethoven, at least not in the sense of traditional male inheritance of surnames...

This was easy to figure out when researchers noticed that Ludwig and Aert belong to different paternal haplogroups. Aert and his five living descendants belong to paternal haplogroup R1b. Ludwig belongs to paternal haplogroup I1.

So at some point in the few generations between Aert and Ludwig, a male Beethoven was raised by someone other than his biological father.

The researchers then attempted to trace Ludwig's true biological patrilineage, which could be hidden in any of the generations between Aert and Ludwig's father, Johann. Researchers were able to verify that Aert fathered two of his sons, Jan and Lambert, but could not definitively prove Aert was the father of Hendrik, the paternal ancestor believed to lead to Ludwig. This doesn’t necessarily mean Hendrik is where the paternal line breaks, but it’s a possibility.

Now I know what you may be thinking (because like I said: you’re pretty smart)…

What if the hair locks were FAKE??

Don’t worry, researchers checked…

The researchers tested eight locks of hair from the eight different friends Beethoven gifted the locks to…

Of the eight, FIVE were confirmed to be from the same person, a man with primarily German ancestry, which made sense for Beethoven. Two locks of hair were confirmed to be fake, with one of the fakes being a woman’s hair, and the third non-Beethoven lock is unknown because it was too damaged to be tested.

Given the historical paper trail between Beethoven and his locks of hair, the researchers felt it was safe to assume the five identical locks from Germany were indeed Beethoven’s.

The study also explored Ludwig's maternal ancestry, tracing it back to the Rhineland-Palatinate region in Germany in the 1600s. Mitochondrial analysis showed that he belonged to a common European haplogroup called H1.

If you’re a CRI Genetics customer, login to your CRI Genetics account and check out your haplogroup reports to see if you share a common ancestor with Beethoven.

If your paternal haplogroup is I1, then you share a direct paternal ancestor with Beethoven. Bonus fun fact: Warren and Jimmy Buffet both belong to maternal haplogroup I1 as well!

If your maternal haplogroup is H1, then you share a direct maternal ancestor with Beethoven. Bonus fun fact: Nobel Prize winner James Watson also belongs to maternal haplogroup H1.

Not a CRI Genetics customer yet? Head over to our homepage and fill out the form at the top to see samples of what your haplogroup reports may look like.