News / 

Beethoven's bones

Save Story

Estimated read time: 9-10 minutes

This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

Knight Ridder Newspapers


DANVILLE, Calif. - Joan Kaufmann is thumbing through neatly cataloged volumes of family letters and documents in her Danville, Calif., home when she comes across a page of scribblings of particular interest. Casually jotted on a piece of paper are the contents of an aluminum lunchbox that once belonged to a relative named Tom Desmines in the south of France: "11 silver spoons ... 1 gold chain, 36 grams ... Chinese lock and key ... box Beethoven skullbones."

Kaufmann, who is 70, chuckles: "I never assumed that I married into a family like this."

She did, 47 years ago. But it's only recently that the family history has come sailing out of the mists. In 1990, she and her husband Paul, a business executive, visited Desmines, an old bohemian who was badly ailing, and brought home the bones that Paul had been hearing about since he was a boy and which his Uncle Tom had stashed in the lunch box.

In Danville, they locked them in their bank's safety deposit box and figured they would look into their authenticity - Beethoven's bones? - once Paul, whose career was going great guns, retired.

Paul Kaufmann, now 69 and not yet close to being retired, couldn't quite wrap his head around just what might be lying there in the bank vault until a Beethoven scholar named William Meredith entered the picture six years ago.

It took Meredith, director of San Jose State University's Center for Beethoven Studies, to uncover and explain the complicated chain of family history that he is convinced brought the bones to Danville. And to overcome Kaufmann's skepticism: "The whole thing seemed so fantastic to him," Meredith says. "How could part of Beethoven's body wind up in Danville?"

The journey of the bones is a real who-done-it, a grand 19th century tale, much of it set in Vienna amid what turns out to be one of the most fascinating families in that city's fabled cultural history.

Perhaps its most compelling character is Kaufmann's great-great uncle Romeo Seligmann - known as "The Wonderful" in Vienna - who was a collector of skulls, an eminent physician, scholar and friend of Franz Schubert. His best friend was Ottilie von Goethe, the daughter-in-law of the poet Goethe, the other titan of 19th century German culture. Some of Ottilie's many gifts to Romeo - including the poet's own silver pencil - now are owned by the Kaufmanns.

But for headline purposes, the bones are unbeatable.

Last month, Meredith and Kaufmann announced that the skull fragments had surfaced: "The first time the world has ever known where they are," Meredith said at a press conference. Already, the Kaufmanns had loaned the fragments - two slightly less than palm-sized pieces and 10 pebble-sized flakes - in perpetuity to the Beethoven Center where they will remain under lock and key for future study.

Eventually, with as much sensitivity as possible, they are likely to be displayed in an exhibit explaining their history and the scientific testing to which they've been subjected.

Earlier this month, it was announced that chemical testing of the fragments at a U.S. Energy Department lab supports the theory that Beethoven died of lead poisoning at age 56 in 1827. Excessively high lead levels were found in the bones.

This was an important announcement: In his famous Heiligenstadt Testimony, written in 1802, poor Beethoven, who suffered from terrible fevers, debilitating stomach ailments and famously erratic behavior, had confessed thoughts of suicide and prayed that, after his death, his doctor would be able to "explain the causes of my malady so that the world may be reconciled to me."

The source of the lead poisoning remains a mystery, yet all of Beethoven's ailments conceivably were attributable to it - maybe even his deafness, though Meredith suspects the composer's slow-growing hearing loss had other causes, possibly genetic.

That's one reason he and the Kaufmanns took the bones last June to the University of Munster in Germany. There, researchers carefully drilled a half moon-shaped crater the size of a pea in the underside of one of the fragments, captured the drilled-out bone dust, and - first things first - attempted to match DNA extracted from the dust to that of a famous lock of Beethoven's hair that has been part of the Beethoven Center's collection since 1994. (The idea being to put to rest any fears that the bones might not belong to the composer.)

Thus far, only a partial match has been made. Future tests and advancing technology may or may not change that fact; given the age of the bones, Meredith cautions, a complete match may never happen, in which case the source of the deafness also might remain a mystery.

Yet the provenance of the bones - its chain-like history of ownership, laid out by Meredith in detail in the latest issue of The Beethoven Journal, published by the American Beethoven Society - appears so rock-solid that he and other scholars are convinced they are the real thing.

"I have every confidence that these bone fragments are genuine," says Barry Cooper, a British expert on Beethoven. University of California-Berkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin didn't even raise the possibility of misidentification in an e-mail to Meredith. He simply urged against exhibition of the bones: "Oh, please, don't display them. Displays of saints' relics have nothing to do with scholarship."

The story of the saint's bones begins, of course, in Vienna. The day after Beethoven died in 1827, his body was subjected to a brutal autopsy; the ears were cut out and the skullcap was roughly removed, a primary reason that Beethoven's skull fell into nine large fragments.

In 1863, the body was exhumed for study and reburial by the Society of Friends of Music in Vienna. That, Meredith is certain, is when Romeo Seligmann, Kaufmann's great-great uncle, secretly was given the bones, one from the back of the head, one from the left side.

In the course of what was deemed a scientific inquiry into the composer's genius, he had been measuring and analyzing some of the bones at the apartment of a man named Gerhard von Breuning. As a teenager, Breuning had visited Beethoven on his deathbed and now believed the bones to be of such scientific importance that they shouldn't be reburied. Meredith posits a "gentleman's agreement" between Breuning, Seligmann and possibly the Society itself, allowing Romeo to keep certain of the skull bones.

Romeo "The Wonderful" was an anthropologist, author, translator of Persian texts and doctor, the first professor of the history of medicine at the University of Vienna. Of special interest, considering the recent DNA testing of the bones, is the fact that his mother was a cousin of Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics. "Romeo is just one of the most interesting guys of the 19th century," says Meredith. "Nobody beats him."

He also is just one of the characters in the saga. Romeo left the bones to his son Albert, a distinguished painter and art critic in Vienna and a friend of Johannes Brahms. Albert seems to have hidden the fragments during World War II (the only gap in the provenance), fearful that the Nazis, who turned Beethoven's music into an advertisement for the Third Reich, would have had a field day with the relics.

Though his family had converted to Catholicism, Albert also may have feared that his own Jewish blood would be discovered and the bones seized as a result.

Then there is Albert's cousin, Ada Rosenthal Kaufmann, a botanist, who fled the Nazis and, along with her son Tom Desmines, inherited the bones from Albert when he died in 1945. Desmines, a Nazi prisoner of war who survived to become a Nuremberg Trials translator, lived out his life in Vence, France, taking baths in the Roman cistern in his garden and drinking wine with his friend Marc Chagall.

Before Meredith began his research, reading, translating and ordering the Kaufmanns' voluminous collection of letters and documents, Paul Kaufmann had known only the bare-bones outline of the succession of ownership of the skull fragments, from Romeo to Albert to Ada and Tom.

"Can you imagine how I felt when I suddenly learned all of this?," he asks. "I was in awe. I'm still in awe."

Kaufmann grew up in Honolulu, where his parents immigrated in the 1920s. His father, George Otto Kaufmann, born in Germany, trained thousands of residents and GIs in refrigeration, radio and other trades. His mother, Alma - sister of Tom, daughter of Ada - worked at her husband's trade school and, when Paul was a boy, would call for him by opening the back door and whistling the first notes of Beethoven's Fifth.

"My parents were very much aficionados of classical music and the arts," says Kaufmann, who after graduating high school in 1953 attended the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut, married Joan, and received his MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

The couple began raising their two children and set off into what Joan calls "the corporate life." Paul Kaufmann's most recent venture is as president and CEO of Wellness Express Healthcare, which is establishing walk-in medical clinics in Longs Drugs stores in California and Hawaii.

For years, the couple only occasionally mentioned the bones to friends. Joan Kaufmann imitates the typical reaction, a mixture of surprise and skepticism: "Oh, really?," she says, raising her eyebrows.

Touring the house with the Kaufmanns, one gets the feeling that the Old World has at last become part of their New World. The most valuable treasures have been stored elsewhere, but the corridors are lined with paintings, lithographs and a number of engravings of European ruins, gifts from Ottilie to Romeo.

There is a portrait of Louis Pasteur - Meredith figures he was yet another family friend - and one by Albert of an Aunt Therese, noble and a little mysterious in profile.

A small table, around which Romeo, Schubert and their friends once sat smoking pipes, is in the vestibule. The Biedermeier desk at which Romeo and Albert worked in Vienna is in the bedroom and one of Albert's engravings is in the living room.

It is a colorful ballroom scene, two men in tails, looking a bit anxious as they prepare to ask a pair of beautiful women to dance.

Another window into a rediscovered world.


(c) 2005, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

Most recent News stories


Get informative articles and interesting stories delivered to your inbox weekly. Subscribe to the Trending 5.
By subscribing, you acknowledge and agree to's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

KSL Weather Forecast