Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Beethoven's Hair by Russell Martin

Recommended by Jen

This past summer I read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, and despite some of it being a bit of a slog, I became very interested in popular science books. When I found this one, I bought it immediately, because it's a pop science book while also being a bit of a suspense thriller, and a great biography. Beethoven has always been my favourite composer. There's something about playing his music that just transports you somewhere else. The fiery passion of the Waldstein; the quiet beauty of the Moonlight; the glory of the Ode to Joy... there's no other music that makes me feel the way Beethoven's does. Yet his is a sad story as well. I've read a ton of biographies on him, because I'm fascinated by this man who was gruff, not exactly friendly to anyone in any way, mostly because he suffered from a plethora of ailments. The worst, of course, being his hearing. I remember seeing the film Immortal Beloved years ago, and while the movie was totally made up (the woman the movie claimed was his immortal beloved was not the actual one) there was something devastating about the scene where Gary Oldman, playing Beethoven, is so desperate to hear his own music that he lays his head on the piano while playing the Moonlight Sonata, hoping that the vibrations will allow him to hear it. In this book Martin tells the legendary story of Beethoven conducting the glorious 9th Symphony, and at the end the opera house completely erupts, with the audience shouting their praise, standing on chairs, throwing their programmes into the air, and bringing down the house... while up on the podium, his back to the audience, a completely deaf Beethoven quietly closes his music, and has no idea his symphony has had this effect on people, until someone finally runs out from the side of the stage and turns him so he can see the audience whooping it up. It's a moment that almost makes you cry.

This book has three threads of story that it follows: There's the story of Beethoven himself; the story of Hiller, the man who, when he was 15 years old, was brought in to see the corpse of Beethoven the day after he died, and was allowed to clip some of his hair as a keepsake, and how that lock of hair falls into several different hands over time; and the two men in the present who eventually buy it at Sotheby's and put it through forensic testing to once and for all find out what caused Beethoven's deafness and all of his ailments (among them: gout; edema that swelled up his feet and belly to enormous proportions; diarrhea and serious gastrointestinal ailments; migraine headaches; and many, many more). Over several years musicologists and scientists have speculated it could have been syphilis or any number of ailments. But what the scientists finally find out is surprising.

The writing in this book is superb; as Martin is telling the gripping story of this lock of hair changing hands, at one point ending up being involved in saving Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War, you're on the edge of your seat, following this legendary lock of hair as it goes from one person to another, and each new person discovering how important it is. Alternating chapters are on Beethoven himself, where he takes the information they find out in the present and tell the story through the new information. And the remaining chapters are about the two men who buy the lock of hair and how they decide to go forward with the testing, and the resistance they encounter along the way.

I thought this book was absolutely fascinating: if you love Beethoven's music, you'll love this book, and if you're just interested in the power of science allowing us to understand the life of someone who died in the early 19th century, this book is also one you'll like. I can't recommend it enough.

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