An engrossing tale of an odd subject—a chance snipping of Beethoven’s hair and its perilous journey into the 21st century.
In 1827, on his deathbed, Ludwig van Beethoven was visited by his friend, the composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel. In tow was Hummel’s talented 15-year-old pupil, Ferdinand Hiller, who was, not surprisingly, thrilled to be presented to the musical genius. On a subsequent visit some days later the two found the great man dead. The awestruck Hiller asked and received permission from Hummel to clip a lock of the deceased’s hair, a common practice in those days. Hiller, the son of a well-off Jewish merchant who had converted to Christianity, became a competent, but now mostly forgotten, composer. He had the lock framed and treasured it the rest of his life, presenting it to his son Paul shortly before his death in 1885. From that point on, the history of the lock remained murky until a few years ago, when it ended up in the joint possession of two Arizonans with the unlikely names of Ira Brilliant and Alfredo (“Che”) Guevara. In this quirky but enjoyable work, Martin (Out of Silence, not reviewed) sifts through the evidence he has unearthed and provides a highly entertaining and believable account of what happened to the lock during those missing years—amounting to a thumbnail biography of Beethoven that is eventually overshadowed by an account of the Third Reich’s persecution of the Jews. While some might object to this as gimmickry, Martin pulls it off, owing to his solid research and respect for the reader. While obviously enthusiastic, he never goes over the top. He suggests answers to numerous riddles, but he does not insist on their solutions, letting the reader decide. When, toward the end of the book, the author writes of DNA tests on the hair that reveal new answers to the causes of Beethoven’s deafness and death, even the skeptic will share his enthusiasm for this peculiar subject.
First-class history, and a fascinating exposition of forensic science.