Beethoven's Hair

by Russell Martin

Published by Broadway

276 pages, 2000






Musical Samson

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


Sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction. More conspiring. And more filled with coincidence than would be credible in a work constructed purely through imagination. Russell Martin's striking Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved is like that. There are elements here that would push the edges of the staunchest bambi's belief in fiction. Part of what makes it work here is the eloquence and diligent research of author Russell Martin. Martin weaves the strands together for us in a way that not only makes it believable, it brings it all beautifully to life.

In some ways, this story begins near its end. In December of 1994, a pair of Beethoven enthusiasts got together to purchase a lock of the master composer's hair at a Sotheby's auction in London. They didn't have a plan: no thoughts of DNA testing or the like crossed their minds. What they thought about was this: a lock of hair of one of the greatest composers that had ever lived, possessed of -- arguably -- one of the greatest minds that had ever commanded gray matter was available at auction. By pooling their resources they would come to own -- to own -- a real part of the composer who meant a great deal to both of them. When they were successful in their bid of what was about $7300 US in total, Ira Brilliant who had initially spotted the relic in the Sotheby's catalog was ecstatic. Writes Martin:

His hair. Ira Brilliant and his partners now actually owned a bit of Beethoven's hair. Nothing akin to it might ever be offered again, and he realized this before another notion nearly buckled his knees. He and Irma and Che Guevara [no relation] and their cluster of associates in San Jose soon would be able to hold something of the great man himself in their quavering hands.

The story of the hair's acquisition and the secrets it ultimately gave up would have been worthy of a book in themselves. In fact, a lesser writer than Martin might well have contented himself with just the modern take. In truth, it's a good enough story to warrant not only a book but perhaps even one of those dreadful movies of the week. For Martin, however, the modern day chapters seem to have been merely what whetted the appetite. Martin brings us not only a stirring account of the life -- and death -- of Beethoven, but also as lifelike a picture as perhaps has yet been painted of the society in which the composer lived and worked.

For example, Martin spends some time evoking Ferdinand Hiller, the young musical prodigy who snipped a lock of hair from Beethoven's corpse while paying his respects to the late composer in the company of his piano and composition instructor, Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

Hiller was 15 at the time of Beethoven's death and -- due to Hummel's friendship with the composer -- had visited the ailing man several times. Though later in his life Hiller didn't acknowledge the snippage -- perhaps, reasons Martin, because they hadn't secured permission from the composer's heirs -- Martin fills in the blanks with might-have-beens that feel quite reasonable given the distance of time:

Yet other locks of hair, it was obvious, had been cut already, and it is easy to imagine Hummel whispering his assent to his student, the two men quietly moved by the simple ritual and the sadness of the moment, Ferdinand Hiller wielding the scissors he had brought with him for that hopeful purpose, lifting a thick lock of Beethoven's long and half-gray hair, pulling it away from his head, and setting it free.

To his credit, Martin never suggests that there might have been some spiritual connection -- or misconnection -- between Beethoven and that hank of hair, even though the remainder of Hiller's life seemed -- to me, anyway -- to suggest it. Hiller seems to have only very narrowly escaped from becoming one of those composers who remain household names to this day. He counted among his close friends, peers and contemporaries some of the ranking musicians of the time. As a young man, he befriended Hector Berlioz in Paris. In Paris, also, Martin meets the writers Honoré de Balzac, George Sand and Heinrich Heine as well as the composers Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt and Vincenzo Bellini. So taken with Paris was the young Hiller that he convinced his friend Felix Mendelssohn to join him there.

The balance of Hiller's life seemed to follow the path set in Paris: he was always in the company of greatness, though he seems to have only narrowly missed that boat himself, although he was esteemed during his lifetime. Near the end of his life he was made a member of the Berlin Academy and the University of Bonn granted him an honorary doctorate. As well, "... he had been knighted as well when the Order of the Crown of Württemberg was bestowed on him. He now was the esteemed Dr. Ferdinand von Hiller." None of this would have much of a lasting value. Schumann once said that Hiller's music, "lacked that triumphant power that we are unable to resist."

The chapters describing Hiller and his society are deeply satisfying but comprise only a small portion of Beethoven's Hair. There is a great deal about Beethoven himself, set down here as engagingly as can be imagined. More importantly: the DNA and other testing made possible by the possession of the hair gives Martin an inside that has been lacking in other biographies. Not that any truly startling truths are ever uncovered, but Martin is able to state with conviction what others have merely been able to ponder in the past.

Beethoven's Hair is less crisp and engrossing when the modern portions of the story are retold but since Martin, quite sensibly, brackets these chapters between those dealing with pure history, we're saved from the familiarity of the mundane. Perhaps it's just the comparison: on the one hand, powerful microscopes, international auctions and DNA sequencing -- the stuff of science fiction or at least modern thrillers -- in sharp relief against the romance and intrigue of 19th century Vienna, or the high drama of World War II. At times it's difficult to know in what gear your brain should be lodged. In the end, however, Beethoven's Hair is a satisfying and enriching encounter. | November 2000


Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States. Most of the time, he's happy to be alive.