Monday, June 2, 2008

Beethoven's Hair

Beethoven’s Hair is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read. The style is very easy to read, and it’s well-organized. It tells both the biography of Beethoven—in a streamlined but not simplistic style—and the rather remarkable story of a lock of hair clipped from the dead composer’s head by a young student named Ferdinand Hiller. I had wanted to read this book for years but finally made myself read it because it’s good research for something I’m writing. Anyone will come out of it with a profound appreciation for Beethoven’s character even if s/he hadn’t been a big fan of his music. The reader will also come out of it with a sense of the magnitude of devotion of Beethoven’s fans. The 500 or so strands of hair acquire an almost saint-like quality. It occurred to me it’s almost fetishistic—but what relic would you rather have of your beloved role model? A score he’d handwritten or a piece of his hair? Despite the morbidity I think true fans would choose the latter.

If you’re like me, you knew the barest essentials about Beethoven’s life. The book splits his biography into 6 sections, from his birth in 1770 to his last days in 1827, inter-spliced with the lock of hair’s voyage—as close as they can chart it—from Hiller’s gift to his son in 1871 to it somehow ending up in the hands of a Danish physician in World War II. It’s a nice symmetry that the book actually begins at the end—when the hair, now in the joint possession of Beethoven enthusiasts Ira Brilliant and Dr. Alfredo “Che” Guevara, is “operated” upon. You have probably heard in the news by now about the pair’s findings toward chemical content in Beethoven’s hair. But that doesn’t take any of the excitement out of a) the hair’s journey through time; b) their findings. The one part I didn’t quite understand was the fact that we are explicitly told we will probably never know who gave Dr. Kay Fremming the hair in 1943, but then an entire chapter goes on and on, pretending that they will provide us with the answer when all we are left with is mere speculation.

The book is life-affirming in terms of Beethoven, who suffered a litany of debilitating illnesses throughout his life, not just confined to tintinitus and deafness, but produced his masterpieces anyway, and is also curiously uplifting in the fact that his hair played a small role in the successful, secret transport of hundreds of Jews from Denmark to Sweden, right under the Nazis’ noses. While the bravery and modesty of the Danish underground is inspirational, perhaps the most poignant moment is the Theresienstadt prison orchestra, minus its Danish members who have been extradited, playing for them Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony in 1945.

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