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The Mysteries of Beethoven's Hair by Russell Martin and Lydia Nibley

I reviewed this book back in 2018. Since I have just attended a Beethoven festival last weekend, I came to think of this book. I decided to take it up again, as I have just been attended a Beethoven festival. I write about the festival and Beethoven and his influence on people today in my newsletter this week.

The book has an interesting topic, of which I had never heard before. Since I love a real life mystery, it was a must read for me. It seems that when Beethoven died in March 1827, the fifteen-year-old musical protégé Ferdinand Hiller was in Vienna, visiting the composer together with his instructor Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Hiller later wrote:

"He lay, weak and miserable, sighing deeply at intervals. Not a word fell from his lips; sweat stood out on his forehead. His handkerchief not being conveniently at hand, Hummel's wife took her fine cambric handkerchief and dried his face again and again. Never shall I forget the grateful glance with which his broken eyes looked upon her."

Three days later Beethoven died and a day later they went back to pay their respect.

"The two did not remain for long beside the coffin, but before they left, young Hiller asked his teacher if he could cut a lock of the master composer's hair. …Hummel quietly whispered yes to his student, and the two of them were moved by the deep sadness of the moment. Ferdinand Hiller took the scissors he had brought with him, lifted a small lock of Beethoven's long half-gray hair, pulled it away from his head, and cut it free."

This is the story of how the hair travelled through the Hiller family in Germany, through the Second World War and Denmark and ended up in the United States with two Beethoven enthusiasts, Dr Alfredo "Che" Guevara and Ira Brilliant. Circumstances made them find a note in Sotheby's catalogue about the sale of a lock of Beethoven's hair. They used part of it to make forensic tests to find out what ailed Beethoven.

Now starts an investigation into, not only finding out what medical problems Beethoven had, but also to verify where the hair came from. It is truly a fantastic story of dedication and love for something that belonged to one of our greatest composers. The pair tracked down the hair from Hiller to his children and grandchildren, it travelled to Denmark during the second world war and ended up with a local doctor in the small town of Gilleleje in Denmark, and through his daughter to an auction in London. It is more exciting than any made-up story.

(Warning - spoilers)

The outcome of the examination of the hair was surprising. Most of the samples contained the normal elements found in hair, but his hair also contained "an average of forty-two times more lead than the control samples did". Walsh, one of the scientist, believed that Beethoven had been "massively poisoned by lead at the time of his death and may have been for decades before". This could also explain his health problems. Of course, in those days, nobody knew how dangerous lead was.

A well-written, pedagogical, not too long book about a real life mystery. The authors mix the mystery with facts about Beethoven's life and deeds. It is exciting and when you are in the middle of the search for the Hiller family, it is difficult to put the book down.

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