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RUSSELL MARTIN Beethoven's Hair
Bloomsbury £14.99 ISBN 0-7679-0350-1
AmazonUK (paperAmazonUS


There's an awful lot of hype surrounding this book. The cover itself describes it as 'an extraordinary historical odyssey and a scientific mystery solved', whilst the dust jacket goes even further into hyperbole and calls it 'a rich historical treasure hunt, an Indiana Jones-like tale of false leads, amazing breakthroughs, and incredible revelations'. Be warned, for it is nothing of the sort. I bought it for $22 on a visit to the States (foolishly as it happens as do it for £11.99 and from July you can, if you must, buy it for £8.99 in its paperback version). Hoping for a good read and for something different when you consider your average book on the subject of music or musicians, I found it disappointing. Both badly written and fearfully repetitive - at 276 pages it could have all been done in 100 maximium - it is the victim of a lack of provable historical fact or information.

What is (apparently) certain is that on the day after the great man's death, on 27th March 1827, 15 year-old Ferdinand Hiller cut off a lock of Beethoven's hair; as it turns out the composer was given a fair old short back and sides by the time he was laid to rest, so what happened to all the other locks? Mercifully Russell Martin avoids going down that road. Hiller was a composition pupil of Beethoven's friend Hummel and was taken by his teacher for a few visits during the last weeks of Beethoven's life, witnessing the inexorable ebb of strength and health which resulted in death from… And here we have to wait until the end of the book to find (and frankly it's no big secret to give it away here) that it was lead poisoning. After years of sucking on those pencils while debating whether it should have been a B or a B flat, or years of daily glasses of wine which, to remove the bitter taste in those days, had been plumbed, Beethoven succombed to lead poisoning. And as we know, you can detect such facts (as well as arsenic poisoning) from analysing hair samples. Fortunately the young Hiller helped himself to a mighty chunk including some follicles, thus making scientific analysis all the easier.

What happened to the lock of hair is a parallel theme of the book. First it remained with Hiller until he gave it to his son Paul in 1883, two years before his death. Paul duly recorded the fact on a small piece of backing paper and retained the locket until he died in 1934, having had it restored (and similarly noted) in 1911. Crucially the story then leaps in time from 1934 to 1943 and place from Cologne to the small northern Danish coastal town of Gillelje, where the locket appears in the hands of the local town doctor Kay Fremming. The story goes into a lot of detail about Nazi treatment of the Jews in Denmark and how the local population rallied to save as many as they could. The Hiller family was Jewish but may have tried to conceal the fact. It's possible that a Hiller descendant was among sixty that were betrayed in their attempt to get away to Sweden from Gillelje, and before transportation to Theriesienstadt concentration camp gave the locket to Fremming in an attempt to either save himself or at least stop it falling into Nazi hands. This Fremming never revealed and Martin cannot find out the truth. The locket then passed in 1969 to Fremming's adopted refugee daughter, who, falling on hard times, sold it to Sotheby's where it was auctioned in London on 1st December 1994 for £4140 (£3600 nett to the seller). (If you want to see an illustration of it - the book has none - get hold of a copy of the auction catalogue, where it appears at the top of page 22).

It was bought by two Americans with the unlikely names of Ira Brilliant and Che Guevara, Beethoven enthusiasts and collectors, and four years later in 1998 the hair was analysed. Some of it now resides (582 strands now bizarrely divided between the two men in proportion to the amounts they paid) in San Jose State University in California. Apparently the current owner in Vienna of Beethoven skull fragments has now allowed DNA tests to be carried out to prove that the hair did indeed come from the skull of Beethoven. So even now it's not 100% certain. Hopefully this book will not spawn any others - the prospect of 'Mozart's teeth' or 'Bach's feet' is too ghastly and gruesome to contemplate.

Christopher Fifield

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