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Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved Paperback – October 9, 2001

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 275 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books; First Printing edition (October 9, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 076790351X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767903516
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #83,649 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

A well-publicized 1994 Sotheby's auction listed, among other musical artifacts and ephemera on the block, a lock of Beethoven's hair. The high-bidders of the hair, two Beethoven enthusiasts, were easy enough to identify by their oddball names: one was a doctor named Che Guevara, the other a retired real estate developer named Ira Brilliant. But the real story, as author Russell Martin attempts to explain in this book, is how did the lock end up on the auction block? More important, can we learn anything from a 175-year-old snippet of hair? Somehow, author Russell Martin attempts to weave biographical information about Beethoven's life with scientific findings about his hair (the two buyers had the lock DNA-tested), as well as trace the path the hair took, from the great composer's head right into the present.

It's a tall order and one at which Martin partially succeeds. His facts about Beethoven and Ferdinand Hiller (the original keeper of the lock) are solid, but he hypothesizes at length about how the hair ended up in a small port town in Denmark during the Nazi occupation. Likewise, he spends nearly the entire second half of the book describing the lives of Guevara and Brilliant, occasionally sounding more like a press agent than a journalist. Subtitled "An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Musical Mystery Solved," Beethoven's Hair doesn't truly solve any musical mysteries, but it is a fascinating, original read for Beethoven-philes who want to learn a little bit more about their favorite composer. --Jason Verlinde --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Six years ago an improbable pairDretired real-estate developer Ira Brilliant and a Mexican-American doctor named (remarkably) Che GuevaraDgot together to buy a lock of hair that was snipped from Beethoven's head on his deathbed by a young musician. The hair, enclosed in a glass locket, passed through the musician's family, then, during WWII, into the possession of a Danish doctor who helped smuggle Jews through Denmark into safety in Sweden. When the doctor's daughter put the locket up for sale through Sotheby's in London, Brilliant and Guevara, ardent collectors of Beethoven memorabilia, pooled their resources to buy it. They acquired it for a little over $7,000. After recounting these events in detail, Martin moves on to the "newsy" last third of the book: the two collectors submitted the hair to the most up-to-date DNA analysis, with results they and their publisher regarded as so earth shaking that the book was originally embargoed, lest word of its revelations should leak prematurely. The results, however, do not seem particularly startling, though they shed an interesting light on Beethoven's artistic integrity and the cause of his lifelong ill health. For one thing, the analysts found no trace of morphine, suggesting that the composer, often in great pain, foreswore its use so as to keep his mind clear for his work. They also found abnormally high concentrations of lead, indicating that at some time in his life Beethoven may have been subjected to lead poisoning, which would account for many of his health problems, including his deafness. That's hardly enough to make a book, however, and Martin's account is padded with a great deal of repetitious material on the collectors themselves, a long passage on the Jewish escape from Denmark and familiar tales from the composer's life. Ultimately, the book comes off as a scholarly article that got out of hand. (Oct.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Russell Martin directed and produced the acclaimed documentary film BEAUITUFL FACES, which premiered in 2012 and is being broadcast by television stations around the world. He produced and co-wrote the award-winning documentary film TWO SPIRITS, which premiered in 2011 on the PBS series "Indepdendent Lens" and won that season's Audience Award.

He has written for Time, the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, and National Public Radio, and is the award-winning, internationally published author of two critically acclaimed novels, THE SORROW OF ARCHAEOLOGY and BEAUTIFUL ISLANDS, as well as many nonfiction books. His nonfiction book BEETHOVEN'S HAIR, a United States bestseller and a Washington Post Book of the Year, has been published in twenty-one translated editions and is the subject of a Gemini-award-winning film of the same name.

His highly acclaimed book PICASSO'S WAR has been published in seven international editions; OUT OF SILENCE, was named by the Bloomsbury Review as one of fifteen best books of its first fifteen years of publication, and A STORY THAT STANDS LIKE A DAM: Glen Canyon and the Struggle for the Soul of the West, won the Caroline Bancroft History Prize.

His books have been optioned by Robert Redford's Wildwood Enterprises, the Denver Center Theatre Company, and New World Television. He is, says Kirkus Reviews, "first and foremost a masterful storyteller."

When he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Colorado College in 1995, the citation read, in part, "Mr. Martin offers to general audiences precise and accurate, but highly readable, studies of extraordinarily complex issues. He does more: he sees beyond what is already known; he moves beyond synthesis to new insights. His work is disciplined, analytical, and creative. It is also profoundly humane."

He is based in Ojai, California, near Los Angeles, and welcomes every opportunity to spend time in Barcelona.

Customer Reviews

I recommend any lover of Beethoven read this book.
Melissa M. Seifert
Halfway through the book, I asked my wife why she liked it and she said she didn’t. She said it was so boring she stopped reading halfway through.
Shane Finkelstein
This criticism is very minor, and the book is outstanding.
taking a rest

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

46 of 50 people found the following review helpful By taking a rest HALL OF FAME on November 16, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The quote is from Ludwig Van Beethoven, which was a part of a letter to Franz Wegeler.
Mr. Russell Martin has crafted a beautiful piece of work that is much more complex than it initially appears. The difference between writing a book on a subject this narrowly defined and having it succeed, and producing nothing more than a mind numbing recitation of facts, is extremely fine. In this case the Author did a brilliant job. My only wish is that a few photographs were included, as they would have added to the work. This criticism is very minor, and the book is outstanding.
To have written as narrowly on a subject as suggested by the title would have never merited a book. Mr. Russell gently sways the time frame from the current year, and then as far back as Beethoven's years as a child, and the transitions are seamless. He builds the book in layers, Beethoven's life, illnesses, loves, and his introduction to Mozart. He narrates the custom of taking a lock of hair as a memento, in this case Beethoven's, from days after the great man's death, to the most sophisticated forensic examinations currently available. He writes of the men who purchased the relic, the passion that catalyzed their purchase, and all that resulted from it.
All of this joyfully fascinates, until the great mystery of the hand off of the relic to a Doctor, who risked his life saving Jews from the Nazis darkly enters the story. And it is here the Author transforms the book from a documentation of a historical curiosity, to an important work, by including the remarkable events in Gilleleje Denmark.
The events that surrounded the relics' travels all illustrate the veneration this man and his music have had, and will continue to have for as long as we have a future.
Read more ›
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By R. Tiedemann on August 23, 2002
Format: Paperback
I'm amazed to discover that this may turn out to be my favorite book ever. It sat around here for a couple of years before I read it; the title turned me off. What could possibly be interesting about the hair of the man who created some of the most powerful, affecting and effective music ever written?
However, the tale of what happened to a lock of Beethoven's hair, severed from his head the day after his death by a 15-year-old boy, is a story of honor, love, courage, hope, friendship, man's inhumanity to man, and man's triumph over the worst kinds of adversity. It's also a picture of how 20th century technology can penetrate secrets of the ages.
Martin interweaves several diverse narratives with a biography of Beethoven's health rather than one of his entire life because it's his health that is the issue here. The question involves what we can learn about the terrible physical suffering Beethoven endured from DNA testing of his hair. This question is posed against the background of what happened to the sample from the time of Beethoven's death until it reached the laboratory. The first is familiar; the second is amazing.
Martin treats his material with a sure hand, weaving the stories in and out as he takes us back and forth between the centuries and the characters. I found that I was holding my breath while reading about how the Danes helped the Jews as the Nazis breathed down their collective throats.
This is an amazing and unusual story, told with intelligence and finesse. It's not a book to be skimmed; if you do, it will look disjointed and you'll become confused. It's a book to be reveled in and thoughtfully digested. If you crave perfection, play a CD of Beethoven's last quartets while you read.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Michael Gethin Williams on October 17, 2001
Format: Hardcover
'Beethoven's Hair' was truly a 'good read'. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed reading how the lock of hair found its way to the auction, and then into the hands of the two researchers. The structure of the book is rather humorous and relates to a musical form, tossing and turning between two different time periods: Beethoven's chronological life, and the modern (including W.W.II) time of research. Indeed, the book gives you plenty of spice and reveals much about Nazism and scientology, specific to the findings in the lock of hair, but be warned... if you expect a biography of Beethoven, the one you'll get is very weak, especially in terms of his compositions. I think, though, that this would suit any reader: teachers, music-listeners, doctors, miners, and literate persons alike that can take an interest in the history of such a great genious.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Laurie A. Showers on October 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
"Beethoven's Hair" is quite simply an intriguing masterpiece. Russell Martin has masterfully written a tale that captures your attention and does not let you go. With the overriding story of a lock of mysterious hair, the content is most beautifully presented. In balancing the love of Beethoven - the man and his work, history, and modern day medical science, the author has created very interesting literature. Just like Beethoven's masterpieces, this book is a treasure. I wish I could read it again for the first time.
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29 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Gail S. Altman on October 19, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Martin's book is a fascinating read and well-researched. The journey
of a lock of Beethoven's hair through time is an incredible story, and
Martin tells it well. It is indeed an "extraordinary
odyssey." My only concern is the assertion that this book
"solves a musical mystery," namely, provides the source of
Beethoven's deafness and chronic illnesses. To the contrary, rather
than answering questions, it simply places more questions on the
biographical table. First, Beethoven started having hearing problems
as early as 1798. Are we to believe that he was massively toxic with
lead for 29 years? I find that difficult to believe. Second, I find it
hard to blame Beethoven's visits to the spa, his habit of drinking
water (out of bottles), his wallpaper, or his dinnerware as accidental
sources of his lead ingestion. No one else in Vienna, as far as
medical history goes, suffered from his massive toxicity, despite the
fact that hundreds of thousands visited the spas, drank the water, ate
fish from the Danube, and ate off glazed dinnerware. To ignore the
possibility of intentional poisoning is remiss. Despite these problems
(and presumptions) the book is a good read. ....
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