Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Book Review: Russell Martin's Beethoven's Hair

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Book Review: Russell Martin's Beethoven's Hair

Article excerpt

Book Review: Russell Martin's Beethoven's Hair Russell Martin. Beethoven's Hair. New York, New York: Broadway Books, 2000. ISBN 0-7679-0350-1. Hardback: $24.95.

Its long journey began almost 174 years ago in Vienna on March 27, 1827. The day before, Ludwig van Beethoven, towering genius of his age, had died in the middle of the afternoon during the onset of a sudden storm, momentarily sitting up, opening his eyes and clenching his fist before succumbing to the inevitable. Ferdinand Hiller, fifteen-year-old Jewish music student and protégé of Beethoven's friend and fellow-composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel, now stood again in that room. Gazing at the body of the great man as it lay in its newly-polished casket, he resolved to clip a lock of the master's hair as a keepsake of such a momentous occasion, as several others had done before him.1 He could not have known that this innocent action of an awestruck fifteen-year-old student would, almost two centuries later, become the key to solving one of the enduring enigmas of music history - why did Beethoven become deaf at the comparatively young age of forty-four, and from what did he die? The answers to both these questions are currently unfolding before our eyes as hairs from the glass locket in which this famed lock resided all these years are subjected to a battery of scientific testing. The preliminary results were made public in October 2000. Further tests on both this lock of hair, locks of hair from earlier periods of Beethoven's life, and parts of his skull bone kept from one of the two exhumations of his body are pending.2 These will hopefully present us with the clearest picture yet of his overall health and the reasons for his many illnesses and death. Thus, albeit unknowingly, Hiller will become the catalyst to fulfilling one of his hero's dearest wishes - expressed in the Heiligenstadt Testament - that the reasons for his deafness be made known: "as soon as I am dead, if Dr. Schmidt is still alive, ask him in my name to describe my disease, and attach this written document to his account of my illness, so that at least as much as possible the world may be reconciled to me after my death."3

Beethoven could never have imagined that it would take almost 200 years for this truth to be made known!

It is to this famed lock that our attention is now turned - its fascinating journey having been chronicled in a new book: Beethoven's Hair. 4 Rather than adopt a more traditional approach to this topic, Martin opts somewhat less successfully to alternate the account of the locket's travels with chapters chronicling the various periods of Beethoven's life. This sometimes has the effect of leaving the reader with feeling of disorientation as to the time-scale in what is otherwise a well-written account which holds the attention of the reader rapt as it unfolds. Of the hair's origin we are already aware. It remained in Ferdinand Hiller's safekeeping for some fifty-six years. In May 1883, as Hiller's health began to fail, he started to put his affairs in order, making a gift of this - perhaps his most treasured possession - to his son Paul as a thirtieth birthday present. Two years later he was dead. Shortly before Christmas 1911, the now fifty-eight-year-old Paul Hiller decided to have the locket repaired. When he collected it from art dealer Hermann Grosshennig's Cologne gallery, one small addition had been made. Beneath the outer backing was a layer of paper upon which the art dealer had written the following inscription: "Newly pasted to make it dust-free. Original condition improved. Cologne d. 18/12 1911" (English translation). To this Paul Hiller added, in his own hand, the following statement: "This hair was cut off Beethoven's corpse by my father, Dr. Ferdinand v. Hiller, on the day after Ludwig van Beethoven's death, that is, on 27 March, 1827, and was given to me as a birthday present in Cologne on 1 May, 1883. Paul Hiller" (English translation). Hiller died unexpectedly on January 27, 1934, in the presence of his wife Sophie, and their two sons Edgar and Erwin. …

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