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Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved

3.77  ·  Rating details ·  1,919 ratings  ·  262 reviews
The basis for the movie of the same name, an astonishing tale of one lock of hair and its amazing travels--from nineteenth-century Vienna to twenty-first-century America.

When Ludwig van Beethoven lay dying in 1827, a young musician named Ferdinand Hiller came to pay his respects to the great composer, snipping a lock of Beethoven's hair as a keepsake--as was custom at the
Paperback, 288 pages
Published October 9th 2001 by Broadway Books (first published January 1st 2000)
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Average rating 3.77  · 
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 ·  1,919 ratings  ·  262 reviews

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La Tonya  Jordan
Oct 25, 2015 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: History Readers
Recommended to La Tonya by: Palladium Bookies
Shelves: good-read
Ludwig Van Beethoven lay dying in 1827 and a young inspiring composer Ferdinand Hiller snip a lock of his hair as keepsake which was the custom of the day. How this lock of hair traveled through the centuries of 1827 Vienna to be auctioned and sold on December 2, 1994 by Sotheby's auction house in London, England is a mystery? The book takes the reader thru Vienna, Denmark, Cologne, the sea port city of Gilleleje, and countless interviews to piece together this mystery.

At times the book reads l
Aug 02, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011, non-fiction
Although this book had an interesting story to tell, I had some issues with the way Martin chose to tell it.

For starters, the structure of the book was a little off-putting. He alternated chapters concerning the journey and fate of the hair with chapters about Beethoven's life, and I found that kind of jarring, somehow. I also found that he repeated himself a lot, and went into greater detail about seemingly minor incidents than felt necessary. Frankly, a lot of it felt like filler. This book co
Melissa T
Feb 11, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
As boring as this may sound--I was fascinated! It was amazing to see the progression of "beethoven's hair" along to modern times when we actually were able to do testing on it to find out why Beethoven was deaf. Probably my favorite part of the book was when his hair was with a violin in Denmark during WWII--it had probably 40 pages full of the heroism of the Danes during WWII. Obviously that has nothing to do with Beethoven (except that apparently a lock of his hair experienced it!), but well w ...more
Kathleen Dixon
I hadn't read anything abut this finding of a lock of Beethoven's hair, so found the topic fascinating. However, I found the book far too wordy and I skimmed an awful lot of it. A slim volume, one quarter the size, would have held my interest and would have received 4 stars in a review.
Feb 22, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This historical non-fiction book is about the true story of Beethoven's lock of hair that was innocently snipped from the musician's corpse by a 15-year old piano student, Ferdinand Hiller who, before he died by the age of about 80, passed it to his only son, Paul Hiller, who in turn gifted it to an unknown museum in Germany and was mysteriously given to a doctor in a small town in Denmark by an unknown refugee fleeing the Nazism that was endangering the lives of the Jews in Europe.

Beethoven wa
David Hines
Nov 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a delightful little book that is a wonderful read! Tells the story of Beethoven through a lock of his hair, carefully handed down for generations, and intermingled with the tale of how it came to be passed on through an encounter during World War II when Jews came through the Denmark city of Gilleleje and residents there tried to rescue them and transfer them through to Sweeden. It's a wonderful tale of the legendary classical composer and a relatively unknown but heroic tale from World ...more
Dec 11, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
When Beethoven dies, a promising young musician, Peter Hiller, clips a lock of his hair. This book is about the journey of the hair through time until it comes into the hands of some American Beethoven admirers.

These two men agree to have some of the hair tested by scientists to see if they can learn the source of Beethoven’s deafness and other illnesses. What they discover is very interesting.
Theresa Connors
Jun 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
An interesting book which traces the path of a lock of Beethoven's hair from his deathbed, through two world wars, ultimately ending up in a lab for analysis. The author includes biographical segments which I enjoyed. It was interesting to read about Beethoven interacting with other notable composers of his time.
On the whole, I really liked this book. It told a fascinating story -- the journey of a lock of Beethoven's hair from Vienna to the United States, by way of Cologne, Germany, Gilleleje, Denmark, and London, England; and its subsequent scientific testing. The intertwined biographies of Beethoven and the people who loved him or interacted with him down the years were particularly fascinating.

So, why only three stars?

First, because of a certain apparent carelessness in some of the writing. For inst
Jan 31, 2015 rated it liked it
IN CASE you were just interested in the forensic stuff about the hair, just skip to page 176 (about the middle).

Pages 1 through 175 are a byzantine recounting of the provenance of the hair itself, which is interesting....but the author spends too much time going down rabbit holes. Those rabbit holes are described in excruciating detail and florid prose. Ultimately, the mystery of how the hair got from Vienna to a Danish fishing village remains undetermined.

However, the forensic stuff is fascinat
Rachel Pollock
Jan 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I do love a good, readble, well-paced nonfiction book on a compelling and odd topic, and this was a very good example of exactly that. Yes, it's ostensibly about how a lock of Beethoven's hair came to be auctioned by Sotheby's, and of course it weaves in a biographical sketch of the composer throughout, but it also takes the reader some pretty amazing and unexpected places: the heroic rescue efforts undertaken by the citizens of Denmark on behalf of their Jewish countrymen during the Holocaust, ...more
Eugenea Pollock
Feb 08, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: car-books
I found this book to be a fascinating examination of the (1) provenance of a significant relic (analogous to that of a revered religious saint) and (2) possible cause(s) of Beethoven's deafness, as well as his other debilitating afflictions, I light of 21st century analytical tools. It had aspects of a scientific thriller, which I would love to have seen developed to a greater extent.
Jennifer Stringer
Aug 28, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
"Seriously, mama? You are reading a book about a ratty piece of hair." Grace Stringer
Jan 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
I found this book in the Book festival, and it is quite an interesting topic, of which I had never heard before. Since I love a real life mystery, it was a must for me. It seems that when Beethoven died in March 1827, the fifteen-year-old musical protégé Ferdinand Hiller was in Vienna, visiting the composer together with his instructor Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Hiller later wrote:
"He lay, weak and miserable, sighing deeply at intervals. Not a word fell from his lips; sweat stood out on his forehead
Renee Roberts
Mar 18, 2018 rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Yehudit Reishtein
Jul 20, 2019 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: music lovers
Very interesting exploration of Beethoven's career and health, and what happened to a lock of his hair which was cut after his death. More than half the book discusses what happened to some of his hair after it was cut by 15 year-old Ferdinand Hiller. Hiller had the hair enclosed in a locket, as was the custom in 19th century Europe, and many years later gave it to his son. Somehow, the locket ended up in the possession of a family in the small fishing village of Gilleleje Denmark, and was sold ...more
Peter Pereira
Oct 12, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
There are times you are not sure why you start reading a book other than it looks interesting, and you 'think' you have a general understanding of what to expect. This is one of those which remind you of how little you know! This book is not a Beethoven biography, or for that matter a book simply about the hair that was cut from his head when he died. It is an historical mystery bridging two periods in time with an incredible story.

There were two things that totally caught me off guard in this
Kyoung Hae Kim
Sep 27, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Beethoven has been my recent fascination since I moved to Vienna, where the grand composer actually lived, performed, and died. The fact that I am living near Heiligenstadt where he spent critical moments (let alone the famous Heiligenstadt Testment) gives me a special bondage with this great man.

Walking along the Beethovengang(Beethoven trail) I ponder upon his deepening frustration and his ultimate victory over his pain.

"Ah, how could I possibly admit weakness of the one sense which should b
This wasn't quite what I expected, but it fit the bill for a Beethoven themed book club meeting I'll be attending tonight. This book gave me just enough information about Beethoven's life and health, plus information about forensic hair analysis, culture in late 1700's - 1800's Europe, a new world war II story (in Denmark this time), and investigative efforts that tie all those things together.

In 1994, two Beethoven fans bought a locket of Beethoven's hair from a Sotheby's auction, and over the
Kate Shannon
Sep 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
Growing up and into my teen years, Beethoven was my main man for Classical music. I still enjoy his music very much, and there isn't much better his 9th Symphony! His music always had so much passion. He wasn't the nicest of men, but you begin to understand some of the reasons why. This is a fascinating book. I loved the way it not only told about the story of the lock of Beethoven's hair and all of it's travels, but also it told us about Beethoven's life and times, and even talked about some of ...more
David Meyer
Jun 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
I wasn't sure where this story would go, and it did not disappoint. A young prodigy gets to meet Beethoven, eventually cuts off a lock of his hair, and the book takes off from there. The story follows not just what is happening with the hair in the present, but follows the likely course the locket that held the hair took as it exchanged hands multiple times. This path leads into some fascinating details about World War 2 that I'd never heard before. The books discusses Beethoven's life (many mor ...more
Aug 11, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating book! I found this because I was searching for books on DNA to help me learn how to use DNA in genetic genealogy. This book is not directly about DNA but solving a different kind of mystery using DNA from Beethoven's hair. I enjoyed the 3 stories that were told in this book. One was about Beethoven which intersected with the story of Ferdinand Hiller who cut a lock of Beethoven's hair after his death when he was 15 years old and preserved it in a locket. The second story is of the ...more
Feb 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This was really fascinating. A clipped lock of Beethoven's hair was purchased from a Danish Sotheby's auction by two Americans, who then began a sleuthing investigation to figure out how it had landed in Denmark as well as pay for tests on the hair to see if they could determine the cause of Beethoven's decades of multiple health problems and deafness. The book gives us a history of the Vienna music scene in the early 19th century and a little known history of how the Danish people helped the Je ...more
Sep 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
3.8 As a great aficionado of Beethoven I found the book interesting and worthwhile. I would recommend it to anyone with similar interest in the composer. The author explores a detailed search for answers to how the hair ended up in the hands of a Danish woman and where the original holders of the hair parted from it. The author alternates chapters delving into Beethoven's life of music and illness with chapters detailing the search for answers to the above questions. This necessarily leads to so ...more
Hadorah Freckles
May 12, 2020 rated it it was ok
So much unnecessary information. This could have been condensed into a 100 pages or written as a lengthy scientific/historical article. Too many names to keep and remember, too many insignificant details, too much worshiping of Beethoven (Chopin also thought so) and too damn long! I’m glad I read it but I definitively skimmed sections. Nevertheless, getting to the root of his maladies by examining the literal root of his hair was fascinating and parts of the book were good but again, it was stre ...more
Peter Steiner
Feb 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
My Beautiful Granddaughter, Rayna, was born on the day this genus was born. So the story had extra special resonance.

It is amazing how Beethoven suffered from a confluence of severe maladies and was still able to produce such sublime and everlasting music.

This book is a travelogue through time, struggles and triumph. A medical whodunnit, stories of great composers and their relationships and stories about wartime struggles and post-war adventures.

I loved this book and highly recommend it.
Oct 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If You Love The Great Classical Composers... You'll Enjoy This Book

Interestingly written jumping back and forth between befors Beethoven's death and after, made this a much more interesting read. For something as small as a lock of Beethoven's hair to survive 2 World Wars is a miracle. Reading how... is the foundation. I highly recommend reading this book if you enjoy Classical music. Beethoven was one of the most highly recognized of these composers... the John Lennon of his day.
Emily Cook
I personally thought it was a bit weird. The whole book we are following this dead man's hair, which is something I couldn't get out of my head and the pictures of it just skeeved me out, but that's just me as a person. I did enjoy reading about the history of Beethoven and how his hair got to where it did and I enjoyed how the writing was interesting to read and easy to follow along. If you have anyone who is interested in Beethoven or musical composers in general, I highly recommend this books ...more
Jan 22, 2019 rated it liked it
I'd have found this book far more fascinating if it had been a lengthy article, where the information could have been streamlined and distilled. It was certainly an interesting reveal about both Beethoven and his hair, but the research was a bit too padded with posing and reposing questions and positing likely answers rather than just working toward the facts as they were discovered. One fascinating reveal was in the summation instead of in the story of events, which I found odd. I also thought ...more
Oct 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Seriously, this is one of the best books I have read. This book covers Beethoven's life alternating with the documented history of a lock of his hair taken from his corpse by another composer. The book is all drama and mystery, and all true. Just an amazing read. I finished the book and thought what a great movie this would make. Then I discovered there is supposed to be an award-winning docudrama mad from this story in 2005, but it appears not to be very accessible.
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Play Book Tag: Beethoven's Hair, by Russell Martin, 3 stars 5 17 Sep 08, 2019 01:28PM  

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“Two decades later, Ferdinand Hiller had proposed in a long essay—published in a special issue of the magazine Salon that celebrated Beethoven’s centenary—precisely where the light of his genius shone most brightly. He had concluded that the fundamental brilliance of the master’s music was that it achieved softness without weakness, enthusiasm without hollowness, longing without sentimentality, passion without madness. He is deep but never turgid, pleasant but never insipid, lofty but never bombastic. In the expression of love, fervent, tender, overflowing, but never with ignoble sensuality. He can be cordial, cheerful, joyful to extravagance, to excess—never to vulgarity. In the deepest suffering he does not lose himself—he triumphs over it. . . . More universal effects have been achieved by others, but none more deep or noble. No, we may say without exaggeration that never did an artist live whose creations were so truly new—his sphere was the unforeseen.” 0 likes
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