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
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.)
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