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Beethoven's Hair

An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved

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Ludwig van Beethoven lay dying in 1827, a young musician named Ferdinand Hiller came to pay his respects to the great composer. In those days, it was customary to snip a lock of hair as a keepsake, and this Hiller did a day after Beethoven's death. By the time he was buried, Beethoven's head had been nearly shorn by the many people who similarly had wanted a lasting memento of the great man. Such was his powerful effect on all those who had heard his music.

For a century, the lock of hair was a treasured Hiller family relic, and perhaps was destined to end up sequestered in a bank vault, until it somehow found its way to the town of Gilleleje, in Nazi-occupied Denmark, during the darkest days of the Second World War. There, it was given to a local doctor, Kay Fremming, who was deeply involved in the effort to help save hundreds of hunted and frightened Jews. Who gave him the hair, and why? And what was the fate of those refugees, holed up in the attic of Gilleleje's church?

After Fremming's death, his daughter assumed ownership of the lock, and eventually consigned it for sale at Sotheby's, where two American Beethoven enthusiasts, Ira Brilliant and Che Guevara, purchased it in 1994. Subsequently, they and others instituted a series of complex forensic tests in the hope of finding the probable causes of the composer's chronically bad health, his deafness, and the final demise that Ferdinand Hiller had witnessed all those years ago. The results, revealed for the first time here, are startling, and are the most compelling explanation yet offered for why one of the foremost musicians the world has ever known was forced to spend much of his life in silence.

In Beethoven's Hair, Russell Martin has created a rich historical treasure hunt, an Indiana Jones-like tale of false leads, amazing breakthroughs, and incredible revelations. This unique and fascinating book is a moving testament to the power of music, the lure of relics, the heroism of the Resistance movement, and the brilliance of molecular science.

An astonishing tale of one lock of hair and its amazing travels--from nineteenth-century Vienna to twenty-first-century America.

From the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Oct 02, 2000 – Six years ago an improbable pairDretired real-estate developer Ira Brilliant and a Mexican-American doctor named (remarkably) Che GuevaraDgot together to buy a lock of hair that was snipped from Beethoven's head on his deathbed by a young musician. The hair, enclosed in a glass locket, passed through the musician's family, then, during WWII, into the possession of a Danish doctor who helped smuggle Jews through Denmark into safety in Sweden. When the doctor's daughter put the locket up for sale through Sotheby's in London, Brilliant and Guevara, ardent collectors of Beethoven memorabilia, pooled their resources to buy it. They acquired it for a little over $7,000. After recounting these events in detail, Martin moves on to the "newsy" last third of the book: the two collectors submitted the hair to the most up-to-date DNA analysis, with results they and their publisher regarded as so earth shaking that the book was originally embargoed, lest word of its revelations should leak prematurely. The results, however, do not seem particularly startling, though they shed an interesting light on Beethoven's artistic integrity and the cause of his lifelong ill health. For one thing, the analysts found no trace of morphine, suggesting that the composer, often in great pain, foreswore its use so as to keep his mind clear for his work. They also found abnormally high concentrations of lead, indicating that at some time in his life Beethoven may have been subjected to lead poisoning, which would account for many of his health problems, including his deafness. That's hardly enough to make a book, however, and Martin's account is padded with a great deal of repetitious material on the collectors themselves, a long passage on the Jewish escape from Denmark and familiar tales from the composer's life. Ultimately, the book comes off as a scholarly article that got out of hand.
Beethoven's Hair
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  • $11.99
  • Available on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac.
  • Category: History
  • Published: Oct 17, 2000
  • Publisher: Crown/Archetype
  • Seller: Penguin Random House LLC
  • Print Length: 288 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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