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Why Russel Martin’s Beethoven’s Hair kept me reading all night

When I wasn’t painting walls and pulling up carpet this past weekend, I was reading. It’s not unusual to find books that delve into obscure mysteries on my bedside table, so when I found Beethoven’s Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and Scientific Mystery Solved, I eagerly began to read. Now, today most people view relics as sacred objects of the distant past or lusted-for booty found in novels such as The Da Vinci Code; but for Ira Brilliant and Alfredo “Che” Guevara, Jr., two modern-day Beethoven enthusiasts, the most holy relic of all was found encased in an old wooden locket: a lock of Beethoven’s hair. Saints may have held the imagination and awe of the medieval man but for these two modern-day men the idea of touching something so intrinsically Beethoven captured their interest as nothing ever before. How these men, one a real estate developer and the other a physician, acquired Beethoven’s hair and how the modern-day relic moved down generations of one family, traveled across oceans and through time from 17th century Vienna to 21st century America, to finally rest at the center of a scientific inquiry and a historical mystery is the story found between the pages of Russell Martin’s Beethoven’s Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and Scientific Mystery Solved.

Travel back in time to Vienna when the masters of music, Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Chopin, challenged their audiences and one another as they entertained all of Europe. While Martin brings to life the greatness of the times, he is not afraid to pull back the curtain and reveal stirrings of the anti-Semitism that would one day ravage the 20th century. While he empathizes with Beethoven’s physical sufferings, Martin confronts the question of the great composer’s deafness and the many illnesses that constantly plagued his body. But the grander story is still Beethoven’s genius and his ability to create despite his many physical infirmities. The results of recent analysis of the individual hairs found in the locket throw new light upon the musician’s maladies and make his creative output even more inspiring.

The journey of the 582 hairs began on March 27, 1827 and continues to present day. The chronicle of the Hiller family, how young Ferdinand snipped the lock of hair, and how the same hair passed down generation after generation is interesting enough, but in the hands of a writer such as Martin, the detail and breadth of the story becomes but one song within an even greater composition. Captured inside the tale is a historical mystery that dates back to the Nazi occupation of Denmark when a handful of brave Danes in the small village of Gillegje resisted the Germans by protecting hundreds of Jews. How did the lock of hair wind up in this village? Who brought it there? Why was it given to one of the local doctors who helped the resistance? How did the same lock of hair appear years later in Sotheby’s catalogue? Martin recreates the moment when Ira Brilliant realized his bid has been successful:

His hair. Ira Brilliant and his partners now actually owned a bit of Beethoven’s hair. Nothing akin to it might ever be offered again, and he realized this before another notion buckled his knees. He and Irma and Che Guevara [no relation] and their cluster of associates in San Jose soon would be able to hold something of the great man himself in their quavering hands.

What happens then is yet one more story that takes the reader into today’s modern world of forensic DNA testing. Martin braids all the varied strands as deftly as each scientist separates and prepares the hairs for testing. Beethoven’s Hair offers a view of the master musician through a different prism, one that will satisfy the imaginations and cravings of Beethoven enthusiasts while at the same time lure lovers of scientific and historical mysteries deeper and deeper into the story. If found this to be an great example of good creative nonfiction.

This review has been cross-posted on Blogcritics.org.


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