The Mysteries of Beethoven's Hair
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The Mysteries of Beethoven's Hair

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by Russell Martin, Lydia Nibley

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At the time of Ludwig van Beethoven’s death, it was a common practice to take a lock of hair from the deceased as a remembrance, a sacred remnant of the person who meant so much when alive. One such lock of Beethoven’s hair survived through the years and eventually became the joint property of two men who, in 1995, opened the sealed frame that encased

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At the time of Ludwig van Beethoven’s death, it was a common practice to take a lock of hair from the deceased as a remembrance, a sacred remnant of the person who meant so much when alive. One such lock of Beethoven’s hair survived through the years and eventually became the joint property of two men who, in 1995, opened the sealed frame that encased the hair and began the process of unlocking the mysteries of Beethoven’s life, death, and possibly his genius.

Follow the trail of Beethoven’s hair as it was passed on from the boy who cut it to his son and down through the years, as it was safeguarded from Nazi Germany and eventually sold at auction in 1994. Through careful forensic testing, the hairs in the lock revealed the causes of Beethoven’s deafness and his many illnesses. This fascinating story is not only a study of the secrets that forensics can reveal, but a moving history of many people’s devotion to Beethoven’s music.

Husband and wife team Russell Martin and Lydia Nibley follow the success of Martin’s adult book, Beethoven’s Hair, with this retelling for younger readers.

Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Uma Krishnaswami
On Beethoven's death a gray-brown lock of his hair was snipped by a fifteen-year-old musician, Ferdinand Hiller, from the composer's corpse, and placed in a locket. Vignettes from the brilliant, troubled composer's life alternate with an account of the forensic detective work conducted on the lock of hair after it was acquired by collectors in 1994. The combination makes for a fascinating book, a young readers' version of Martin's national bestseller, Beethoven's Hair. Hiller became a composer and musician himself, and he took seriously Beethoven's injunction to him to devote his life to his art. Hiller also happened to be of Jewish heritage, from a family that may have protected itself by hiding that aspect of its identity. In a continent rapidly becoming engulfed with anti-Semitism, it is unclear how the lock of hair got to Denmark as it obviously did. Martin and Nibley use those chapters to speculate on possibilities and to flesh out the events of the evacuation of Denmark for young readers. Here the missing elements of story offer an opportunity to contextualize and clarify, where such a panning out to the larger events of the time may be seen as a weakness in the adult book. Woven into the narrative as well are the lives of the two impassioned Beethoven collectors, Alfredo "Che" Guevara of Laredo, Texas, and Ira Brilliant of Arizona, who acquired the lock of hair at a Sotheby's auction. Finally, The Mysteries of Beethoven's Hair details the meticulous process of testing and investigating historical artifacts and cumulatively building our knowledge about the lives that touched them. An afterword provides the story behind both the adult book and this one. A note fromthe authors clarifies aspects of the art of narrative nonfiction. Reviewer: Uma Krishnaswami
School Library Journal

Gr 5-8

Based on Martin's adult book Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and Scientific Mystery Solved (Broadway, 2000), this reworking for a young audience presents an intriguing interdisciplinary story. Martin and Nibley trace the labyrinthine journey of a lock of Beethoven's hair encased in a glass and wooden locket from the 18th century to the present. Using a balanced mix of verifiable research and some conjecture, they explain the lock's odyssey over time and how it was ultimately acquired by two American Beethoven aficionados in 1994. The perseverance and passion of these men provided the impetus for scientific analysis to seek a physiological explanation for Beethoven's lifelong struggle with myriad physical and emotional problems. The contemporary story of the lock's travels and examination is interspersed with the history of Beethoven's musical genius. Aspects of the Holocaust and the courageous defiance of the Nazis by the Danish resistance become a significant part of the mystery. This is a most unusual, thoroughly researched detective story written in a clearly accessible and lively tone. Black-and-white photos and reproductions appear throughout. Concluding notes offer young people advice about research and explain what narrative nonfiction is and how the authors used it in this book. Though obviously a selection suited for research projects, it is also an incredibly readable and absorbing selection that demonstrates the multidimensional nature of true scholarship.-Renee Steinberg, formerly at Fieldstone Middle School, Montvale, NJ

Kirkus Reviews
In 1827, a music student cut a lock of hair as a memento from the head of recently deceased Ludwig van Beethoven. In 1994, two Americans bought the hair for about $7,300 and had scientists subject it to forensic tests. This slim volume introduces Beethoven's life, with an emphasis on his poor health and emotional problems, interspersing chapters about the hair's journey from Vienna to Arizona and the scientific analysis. Although the lock's history intersects with Denmark's remarkable evacuation of Jews in World War II, the specifics of its journey are unknown, which leaches some of the excitement from the episode. One must also wonder how many child readers will be captivated by the revelation that Beethoven's hair had extremely high levels of lead, much as the authors strain to build to a dramatic climax. Beethoven fans and music students may be intrigued, but overall the audience for this mildly interesting story will be limited. Black-and-white archival illustrations and photographs add little to the appeal. (authors' note, index) (Nonfiction. 10-14)
From the Publisher
" incredibly readable and absorbing selection that demonstrates the multidimensional nature of true scholarship." —School Library Journal "...absorbing..." —The Horn Book Magazine

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1400L (what's this?)
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10 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Mysteries of Beethoven's hair

By Russell Martin Lydia Nibley


Copyright © 2009 Russell Martin and Lydia Nibley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57091-714-1

Chapter One

Beethoven: A Lock of Hair

Ludwig van Beethoven's hair spread wildly out from his head and blew in all directions as he took his daily stroll through the city of Vienna. He had a habit of clasping his hands behind his back, his head thrusting forward, and he walked in an odd, lumbering way. His expression was often foreboding, and his eyes appeared small but bright. His complexion was dark and his face had been pockmarked by smallpox when he was a boy. Although his mind was full of music, he could not hear the noise of the great city in which he trod. The deafness that years before had begun to rob him of subtle sounds by now had reduced his world to silence, and he could hear only the music he imagined.

Yet Ludwig van Beethoven, this strange figure who sometimes was mistaken for a tramp because his clothes were dirty and his appearance so disheveled, was actually the most celebrated composer in the world.

In a time without film or television or recorded music, live performances provided the only opportunity for people to hear and appreciate music. What we now call "classical" music was an art form that was enormously important in the lives of the privileged and unfortunate alike, and composers like Beethoven often were seen as little less than gods. Newspapers wrote obsessively about musicians and composers, and huge crowds gathered outside concert halls when a new work was being performed. Despite his deafness and his strange ways, Beethoven had premiered his Ninth Symphony to huge approval, and people believed his bold, passionate, and revolutionary music would endure for centuries.

As Beethoven walked in Vienna, he couldn't possibly have imagined that on his death, a lock of his hair would take an amazing trip through time, and that it would answer the question of why he suffered so many illnesses.

Like the bones of ancient Christian martyrs that were considered sacred, and like the venerated bodies of deceased Tibetan Buddhist Dalai Lamas, a particular lock of Beethoven's hair would become a very important relic, a physical remnant of a once-living human being that kept the spirit of that person present and powerfully alive for others.

How fitting that the wild mane that had framed his face and made him instantly recognizable would unlock some of the secrets of his body, mind, and unruly temperament, and perhaps even explain something about his genius. This lock of hair would survive to tell a true and extraordinary story.

Chapter Two

The Detective Work Begins

On a bright December morning in 1995, a bit of Beethoven's hair that had come from Europe to Arizona was causing quite a stir. The two men to whom the lock of the great composer's hair now belonged—Ira Brilliant, a retired real estate developer, and a Mexican American physician named Alfredo "Che" Guevara—had been joined by many others, including television crews from local stations and from as far away as London. They had all gathered to watch the opening of the dark wood oval frame in which a lock of Beethoven's hair was sealed behind glass. The wood locket was about four inches long, and the coil of brown and gray hair inside it was capturing everyone's attention.

On old paper that had been glued to the flat back of the locket, someone named Paul Hiller long ago had written the following words in German: "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."

While Ira Brilliant and the others watched with fascination, Dr. Guevara, dressed in green surgical scrubs and wearing a mask and gloves, worked at a sterile table, a sharp scalpel in his hand. In a way this was a surgery, and the doctor proceeded carefully. "Now I'm slicing through the last of the glue that holds the paper backing," he announced.

A video camera looked down from overhead. The rest of the group watched the doctor's work on television monitors placed around the room. Everyone was surprised when the first layer of paper came away and more writing was found on another piece of very old and brittle paper underneath. Handwritten in German, these words had been written by a picture framer who had refurbished the locket. And now, many years later, a doctor was carefully cutting this final layer of paper. It came away in one piece, and then he gently pried the locket open with a scalpel. "Wow, could you hear that?" Dr. Guevara asked. "I heard a rush of air like a vacuum when I started to separate the glass." And when the two pieces of glass were pulled apart, there it was—Beethoven's hair—exposed to the world.

As they talked to reporters, Brilliant and Guevara outlined the scientific tests they planned to have conducted on the hair—tests they hoped would determine what drugs and minerals had been in Beethoven's system at the time of his death. High levels of zinc might mean that his immune system had been severely damaged and that his body was trying to compensate. If they found high levels of mercury, this could indicate that he had been treated for a significant infection, since mercury was the common remedy prescribed by doctors at the time. If they found toxic levels of mercury in Beethoven's system, this might help explain his very eccentric behavior. Lots of lead in his hair could point to a potential cause of the composer's deafness and of the terrible stomach pain he had endured throughout his life.

The chemical profile of Beethoven's body at the time of his death would provide important information to scientists and musicologists, yet the newspaper and television reporters wanted to know more than what tests would be run and why. They wanted to know what it was about Beethoven that so obsessed these two men.

"My interest in Beethoven is like a fire burning inside me," answered the grandfatherly and energetic seventy-three-year-old Ira Brilliant, who had been buying letters written by Beethoven and first editions of Beethoven's music for years. He had accumulated a significant collection of material before he and Dr. Guevara set out to purchase Beethoven's hair.

A large man with thick black hair atop his head, his speech filled with echoes of his native Spanish, Dr. Guevara was obviously obsessed with both Beethoven's music and Beethoven the man. "Beethoven was deaf, as you know. He suffered from kidney stones, which is a very painful condition. He had hepatitis; he had multiple episodes of gastrointestinal infections. For someone to have that many maladies and to suffer so greatly and yet produce superhuman music, music that can actually elevate the spirit to a much different plane than the ordinary plane we live in, is quite phenomenal. To get this close to a man who was able to do this ... for me it's a personal triumph. Acquiring the hair already has changed my life."

Chapter Three

Beethoven: A Young & Extraordinary Talent

Ludwig van Beethoven was named for his grandfather, the music director of the court of Maximilian Friedrich. Although Beethoven was not quite three when his grandfather died, in later years he imagined that his huge talents must have been passed down from his brilliant grandfather. Beethoven's father, Johann, was a tenor in the court choir; he taught singing and was a passably good pianist and violinist as well, but his career in music did not seem very bright, and he was not promoted to a higher position.

Beethoven's mother, Maria van Beethoven, was intelligent, patient, and kind, in contrast to her husband, who had a terrible temper and was an alcoholic. Beethoven's father often bullied his son, beating him on occasion, and dragging the crying and frightened boy from his bed to make him practice the piano late into the night. It is easy to imagine that his father's rages might have affected the boy's love of music—that the young Beethoven could have turned away from his talent in rebellion against his father—but instead, Beethoven endured the harsh treatment and developed his remarkable talents.

* * *

Beethoven was a natural musician and had barely reached the age of seven when he gave his first performance on the piano. At eight he began to receive piano, violin, and viola instruction from a series of noted court musicians, and when he was only eleven he became the deputy to the court organist Christian Gottlob Neefe.

In this role, Beethoven played the organ at church services and court functions when Neefe was absent, and in turn Neefe nurtured and encouraged his talented young student in every way he could. Neefe, a compassionate, cultivated, and well-read man, was more like Beethoven's grandfather than his father. He took young Beethoven under his wing and arranged for the boy to study music in Vienna, Europe's musical capital, where Neefe hoped Beethoven would mature into an extraordinary musician. Perhaps Neefe also hoped to keep Beethoven safely away from his abusive father as well.

In Vienna Beethoven studied intently and, on one April afternoon, the young teenage boy from Bonn was asked to play for the great Mozart. Beethoven performed a complicated piece, but Mozart was somewhat unimpressed—surely there were dozens of people who could master one showy composition. Beethoven wanted to demonstrate what he was capable of, and so he asked Mozart to give him a musical theme on which he might improvise. Mozart provided a brief theme and Beethoven expanded it brilliantly, showing an astounding range in his spontaneous composition and exhibiting inventiveness and incredible power. Mozart was astonished and, as he left the room to speak with the courtiers he had kept waiting, he said, "Keep your eyes on that one; someday he will give the world plenty to talk about."

Beethoven would probably have met Mozart again, or even perhaps had the opportunity to study with him, but his time in Vienna was abruptly cut short by news from Bonn that his mother was gravely ill with tuberculosis. After traveling for several days, he was able to reach her bedside and spend time with her before she died. Her death was a terrible blow to the whole family. Beethoven's infant sister, Maria Margaretha, died a few months later, and the family would never be the same. Two younger brothers were now left in Ludwig's care, and his father simply drank himself into a total collapse.

When his father lost his job with the court, Beethoven, who was only eighteen at the time, successfully petitioned the court to grant him half of his father's former salary in order to support his two brothers, his father, and himself. He was the head of the household now, and would have to make the most of the musical education he had received in order to feed and clothe his family and keep a roof over their heads.

Beethoven played viola in the orchestras of the court chapel and theater and became friends with other young musicians. He also had the good fortune to meet a prominent and progressive family headed by the dynamic young widow Hélène von Breuning. The Breuning family was spirited and intellectually curious, and Beethoven was made to feel as if he was part of this lively and interesting family. He was introduced to the thrilling new notions of reform, freedom, and brotherhood known as the Enlightenment, and these ideas influenced Beethoven's music throughout his life. He was already being called a musical genius, and by now he had been commissioned to compose the music for a folk ballet and two cantatas, one commemorating the death of the much-loved Emperor Joseph II, and one in celebration of his successor, Leopold II.

Beethoven worked very hard, and when he was exhausted and ill, which happened often, Frau von Breuning took care of him. She treated him like her own son, and when he was seized with bad tempers and brooding silences, she did her best to encourage him and to buoy up his self-confidence, understanding that Beethoven could, at times, be almost paralyzed with shyness, moodiness, and self-doubt.

The mentors and friends who supported Beethoven's musical and intellectual development wanted to make sure that he was stimulated and that he would have the additional training and support needed to achieve his potential. His supporters realized that in order for Beethoven's talent to be more widely recognized, he must return to the heart of the musical world—to the great city of Vienna. The revolution in France that had begun three years before had now led to rumors of war across much of Europe. The new French regime had declared war on Austria, and Beethoven had to leave Bonn quickly in order to travel safely to Vienna. As he left, he carried with him an album filled with written good wishes from his family, friends, and the patrons who hoped he would fulfill his great musical promise.


Excerpted from The Mysteries of Beethoven's hair by Russell Martin Lydia Nibley Copyright © 2009 by Russell Martin and Lydia Nibley. Excerpted by permission of Charlesbridge. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Russell Martin is the author of more than a dozen books, including Picasso’s War (Dutton) and Beethoven’s Hair (Broadway), a national bestseller for adults and Washington Post Book of the Year. He lives in Los Angeles, California. Lydia Nibley is a writer and producer of books, films, and television projects. She’s also the creator of ZiNj, an award-winning children’s science magazine and television series. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

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