Beethoven’s Hair by Russell Martin

Bloomsbury Press


   Reviewed by Stuart Hille

Unfortunately, any critique of Russell Martin’s book ‘Beethoven’s Hair’ is going to be necessarily landlocked to avoid letting slip too much of the narrative (which, at times, has all the sinuosity of a Shakespearean historical drama) or of the forensic gravity that finally disentwines the secrets of a lock of hair.

This is not to imply that the book does not have some structural handicaps. One of these is a preponderance of condensed historical detail which certainly highlights the author’s thorough research and his enthusiasm to relay his findings but the amount of information – the sort of detail that causes one to skip back pages to revise names and dates etc – works against the book’s premise of offering its story in the form of an engrossing mystery novel ( hence no bibliography or index ).

Nevertheless, it should be said that while, in a sense, a factual story writes itself, this particular material would have been left untold until the investigation of an author of exceptionally adroit research skills, perseverance and detective’s nose for a good tale had buffed away at its secrets. But before we engage in critical analysis, it is important to outline the plot and general development.

Shortly before his death, Beethoven became reacquainted with Johann Hummel, a long -standing friend and rival. Hummel, then living in Weimar, had received reliable word of the composer’s declining health and fast-approaching hour. With him, on the trip to Vienna, Hummel brought a gifted fifteen year old student and Beethoven aficionado: Ferdinand Hiller. The student took down detailed notes of the three meetings with the master, then on March 27th 1827 ( the day after the composer’s death ) he snipped a lock of Beethoven’s hair. Obviously he did so with a tight grip because several strands were still attached to their follicles ( or what would be described, more than one and a half centuries later, as being analysable DNA material ).

While most of us would view such a practice as being acceptable though somewhat maudlin, in Beethoven’s time it was rife to the point of being gruesome. An image of the composer, his face already sunken and distorted by autopsy ( including the removal of various small bones ), and with hair ragged through repeated ‘memento’ taking, is disturbingly grisly. But this is where, for the most part, Martin’s account begins.

The braid, totalling 582 strands, was carefully documented, mounted and sealed. It was passed down through Hiller’s family ( each of whom is painstakingly introduced to the reader ), finds its way, during the horrors of the Nazi persecution, to enemy occupied Denmark where, somehow, it becomes the property of Dr Kay Fremming.

In turn, the lock was passed onto Fremming’s daughter, auctioned at Sotheby’s and bought for the comprehensive cost of $7,300 by two American devotees: Che Guevara (not the real one) and Ira Brilliant. This then, is the barest outline – the full story goes into far more detail and shows far more shadowy intrigue.

The curl was subdivided and a portion consigned for forensic testing. At the time of the book’s publication, two tests had been undertaken: radio-immuno assay in 1996 and dispersion spectrometry in 1998. Since the printing, it has been subjected to non-destructive synchrotron X-ray in September 2000 (which confirmed the findings of the second test) and comparative hair/bone testing (these results, as yet, have not been revealed). The consequence of all of this rigorous scientific fossicking, with each test adding a little more to the puzzle, has been the continual corroboration of the first two tests – particularly the second.

You will need to read the results in Martin’s book and will probably feel quite overawed by the thoroughness of the probing. One conclusion that can be stated in this critique is done so because it might dispel a belief long-held by several readers. Beethoven did not die as a result of tertiary syphilis: a disease was prevalent well before, during and well after his life time. It was treated by compounds of mercury (and this was prescribed even into the 1900s if earlier treatment of salvarsan had failed ). No traces of mercury were found in Beethoven’s hair but what was found could not even be guessed at before testing began.

Medicine, quite rightly, seeks to establish and mark as golden the principle that entities must not be unnecessarily multiplied (Occam’s razor) so one can easily imagine the jubilation – the triumphal throwing of surgical gloves into the air – when one test result yielded a very convincing and simple explanation for not only his death but also for his
on- going rheumatic fevers, diarrhoea, hideous abdominal cramps, kidney stones, oedema, gouts, personality changes, eye pains, abscesses and, incredibly, his deafness.

As initially mentioned, as with the forensic testing, it would be churlish to reveal the full complexities of the owners and whereabouts of the braid from 1827 to 1994. Martin tries to do this but, as we begin to find quite early into the book, it means sacrificing short, clear sentences for those that are long, convoluted and plethoric with information.
To put it differently, there is too much historical data and interpretation to be covered by just one volume. And even then one questions whether a great many people are interesting enough to warrant discussion beyond a footnote or confined to an appendix. Ferdinand Hiller seems to emerge as the most noteworthy because of his famous acquaintances but even here the book’s raison d’être takes on little more than a minor connective role.

Martin creatively palliates the weightiness by interspersing each section (of which there are six) with chapters of interesting details from the composer’s life. This technique generates a type of subplot – obviously related to the main discourse but in a different historical context. It is akin to flashbacks within the ongoing development of a
whodunit so the approach is certainly not new as such but, regrettably, rarely used in the presentation ( for mass circulation ) of archival research.

Overall, ‘Beethoven’s Hair’ is a warmly welcomed addition to the repertoire. It is a superb introduction to the process of investigative diagnosis and is an excellent overview of modern forensic procedure. The size of the website that it has generated is already quite astounding and this would suggest that while new musicological appraisals provide interest and, occasionally, precipitate reconsideration, the information contained in this book, which seems to have come in an unguarded moment, is a true Indian summer for all Beethoven scholars and votaries alike.

© Stuart Hille 2004.

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