An international team of scientists has discovered surprising information about Ludwig van Beethoven’s close family history.

DNA testing has revealed that Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), one of the greatest composers of all time, may not actually have been a Beethoven at all.

Five locks of hair, obtained from different sources and all attributed to Beethoven, were tested by researchers at Cambridge University and the Max Planck Institute and found to be a genetic match to each other, making it highly likely that they came from the composer.

Using DNA extracted from the hair samples, researchers analysed his paternal line by examining his Y chromosome. Y-DNA stays consistent over time and can therefore be used to track male ancestors for many generations.

The research team sought out living descendants of Aert van Beethoven (c1535-1609), Ludwig’s supposed 5x great grandfather. Five of them agreed to take part in the research and do a DNA test.

The two results were not a match. In fact, the two father lines, one from the living descendants of Aert van Beethoven and the other from Ludwig van Beethoven’s hair DNA, are separated by over 45,000 years.

This means that Beethoven’s documented family tree does not match his genetic family tree and that one of the recorded fathers was not the biological parent.

Although it is not clear in which generation this occurred, Johann, Ludwig’s father, has no baptismal record. His mother, Maria Ball suffered from alcoholism and it is possible that Beethoven’s grandfather Lodewijk was not his biological grandfather.

The research team used the genetic Y chromosome profile obtained from Ludwig’s hair to identify potential patrilineal relatives in the FamilyTreeDNA database. These potential relatives had already taken a DNA test on a small section of their Y-DNA and the researchers offered them a free upgrade in order to have a more in-depth test done. Six of the participating customers were found to share patrilineal ancestry with Ludwig van Beethoven.

One of the customers matched with Beethoven said: “It makes me proud. I’ve been doing a lot of research on my ancestors for a couple of years, because I had no idea exactly who my father was, and he had no idea exactly who his father was. This is awesome. I’m a little bit speechless.”

More like this
Read more about some of the interesting people in Beethoven's family tree