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Beethoven's Hair

Updated on January 2, 2009
Ludwig Van Beethoven
Ludwig Van Beethoven

This is a review of Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved, by Russell Martin.

I've recently acquired an interest in Beethoven; the man and his music. I've listened to Great Masters: Beethoven-His Life and Music, from The Teaching Company, but haven't read any other biographies. I found the Great Masters lecture fascinating, and when I saw a copy of Beethoven's Hair at the local library book sale, I had to have it.

This fortuitous find of mine happened to occur just before our vacation to a mountain cabin, which has historically been prime reading time. So I brought Beethoven's Hair up with me. It really worked well, reading such a historically rich book in so contemplative an environment.

The book opens with a prelude. This basically gives an overview of the subject of the book, which is of course Beethoven's Hair. This may seem self explanatory, but it would later become a major point for me.

"Beethoven's Hair, sheltered for nearly two centuries inside a glass locket, was about to become the subject of rapt attention on a warm December morning in 1995."

The prelude explains that a lock of Beethoven's hair had been purchased at an auction in 1994 by two Beethoven enthusiasts, Ira Brilliant and Che Guevara. The interesting thing is what they decided to do with the hair. Brilliant made his portion of the hair a center piece at the Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University, which he helped found. Guevara, who was a physician by trade, sent his portion of the hair out to various scientists who performed DNA testing, chemical analysis, and a host of other tests on the sample.

Some of the results of the testing that was done on Beethoven's hair was interesting. Probably the major outcomes are:

  • Beethoven had an ENORMOUS amount of lead (about 100 times higher than normal lead concentration) in his system at the time of his death.

  • He had no traces of morphine in his system at the time of his death.

The high levels of lead certainly explains much of the suffering he had endured throughout his adult life, but the authors conclusion that it led to his deafness have been disputed by many in the medical community.

The absence of morphine is most impressive. This shows that Beethoven had chosen not to medicate himself, even though he was in quite a lot of pain and misery by most accounts. This is consistent with Beethoven's ideal of the human spirit; that he would choose not to deaden his experience lest he miss some moment of artistic inspiration.

"Young Ludwig was only seven when he gave his first public performance on the piano..."

Most of the book alternates, chapter by chapter, between periods of Beethoven's life and the chronological events that transpired after the composer and his lock of hair had been separated at the time of Beethoven's death. This makes for a fascinating journey of the hair through some of recent history's most harried times.

"Had the lock of hair still remained in Germany on Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when, in November 1938, brownshirted mobs broke the windows of Jewish shops, burned synagogues, and attacked Jewish citizens in the streets of Cologne and throughout all of Germany?"

There were times when I loved the book. But there were also many times when I felt that it was dragging on endlessly. After I thought about it though, I think this was because of my expectations more than the book itself. What I was really looking for was more detail about Beethoven the man, not his hair. I was looking for a biography, but was reading chronicle of Beethoven's hair.

All in all, this is a very interesting book, but not as good a biography as it is a chronicle of the Jewish exodus from NAZI Germany in the 1930's.


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    • M. Beck profile image

      M. Beck 9 years ago from Parts Unknown


      Thanks for the suggestion for a comprehensive biography! Sometimes it's difficult to find qaulity among the quantity of biographies.


    • Siu-Wai profile image

      Siu-Wai 9 years ago from Boston

      "Beethoven's Hair" is a fun book but not really meant to be a comprehensive biography. It was a pretty exciting discovery for us long-time Beethoven enthusiasts. I've actually seen it in person. They say so many people collected locks of the composer's hair that he was ended up practically bald. It was the custom back then.

      A very readable, comprehensive biography is "Beethoven" by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Trade Books, 2001). Enjoy!