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The hair-owing tale of a genius
Book review by Amy Hoelmer, October 2001
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Beethoven's Hair

Beethoven's music has intrigued and delighted us for 200 years, but who would have thought that his hair would endure for nearly two centuries as well?

This improbable longevity is the inspiration for Beethoven's Hair, Russell Martin's skillfully written biography that weaves stories of the composer's humorous but sometimes-gloomy life with the journey a lock of his hair began after his death in 1827.

Years ago, it was a tradition to keep locks of hair from deceased loved ones, and in fact, many Beethoven admirers took a souvenir from his head. The fan that clipped the lock in Martin's book was 15-year-old protégé Ferdinand Hiller.

The lock remained in the Hiller family for over a century until it mysteriously made its way to a small Danish town in 1943. How it got there and into the hands of the town physician is still unknown, but it remained with the doctor's family for several decades until it was taken from Nazi-occupied Denmark and eventually put up for sale at Sotheby's in London.

Two Beethoven enthusiasts purchased the lock in 1994 for more than $5,000. A portion of the lock was committed to research with hopes of finding traces of poison and other chemical imbalances that would possibly explain Beethoven's illness and why he suffered such social ineptness. Results showed a rather large amount of lead, leading scientists to conclude that Beethoven suffered severe lead poisoning as early as adolescence.

Martin's accounts of the composer's life, music, and relationships are entertaining and even moving at times. We can't help but sympathize with the horrible, almost demeaning illnesses Beethoven suffered—gastrointestinal diseases, infections, pneumonia, bronchitis, dropsy, fever, inflammations and colic— and admire his passion to create masterpieces despite his physical limitations (perhaps the most tragic of which was deafness).

Although highly regarded by other composers of his time, including Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and Wagner, Beethoven wasn't always the most pleasant individual—a demeanor reflected, according to Martin, by his hair: "The wild mane that had framed his dark face in his waning years had characterized his unruly temperament as much as his arresting personal presence."

Despite his harsh personal reputation, warm words were spoken at his funeral: " ... until his death he preserved a human heart for all men, a father's heart for his own people, the whole world."

In turn, the world has preserved Beethoven's extraordinary music—and his hair, the unlikely thread running through this cleverly woven and fascinating tapestry of science, history, and music.

Amy Hoelmer is assistant music director at MPR.

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