Beethoven's Hair : An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved
Ludwig van Beethoven lay dying in 1827, a young musician named Ferdinand Hiller came to pay his respects to the great composer. In those days, it was customary to snip a lock of hair as a keepsake, and this Hiller did a day after Beethoven's death. By the time he was buried, Beethoven's head had been nearly shorn by the many people who similarly had wanted a lasting memento of the great man. Such was his powerful effect on all those who had heard his music.
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December 31, 2000
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Excerpt from Beethoven's Hair by Russell Martin
The Boy Who Snipped the Lock
It was not until 1871 that Kapellmeister Ferdinand Hiller, the corpulent dean of music in the Rhine-side city of Cologne, first described for fascinated German readers what it had been like to meet Ludwig van Beethoven and what, in fact, the circumstances of the master composer's final days had been. "I can scarcely blame myself, much as I regret it, for not taking down more extended notes than I did," sixty-year-old Hiller wrote. "Indeed, I rejoice that a lad of fifteen years who found himself in a great city for the first time was self-possessed enough to regard any details. [But] I can vouch with the best conscience for the perfect accuracy of all that I am able to repeat."
Ferdinand Hiller had made the snow-slowed journey from Weimar to musical, magical Vienna with his piano and composition instructor, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, in the early spring of 1827 because Hummel had heard the now far-flung news that his old friend and musical rival was dying. He had wanted to see and embrace Beethoven again before he was gone, and too, he had hoped his talented protege might be inspired by at least a few minutes spent in the company of incontestable greatness. Beethoven had received the two men warmly on March 8 and had satisfied them that their company would be efficacious in fact; they stayed with him for hours that day, then returned three more times during the succeeding fortnight before Beethoven finally succumbed to a diseased liver and a life of relentless pain. Yet on that first day, Hiller remembered, the dying man still had seemed very much alive:
Through a spacious anteroom in which high cabinets were piled with thick, tied-up parcels of music, we reached--how my heart beat!--Beethoven's living-room, and were not a little astonished to find the master sitting in apparent comfort at the window. He wore a long, gray sleeping-robe and high boots reaching to his knees. Emaciated by long and severe illness, he seemed to me, when he arose, of tall stature; he was unshaven, his thick, half-gray hair fell in disorder over his temples. The expression of his features heightened when he caught sight of Hummel, and he seemed to be extraordinarily glad to see him. The two men embraced each other most cordially. Hummel introduced me. Beethoven showed himself extremely kind and I was permitted to sit opposite him at the window. . . .
[In order for him to carry on a conversation,] thick sheets of ordinary writing paper in quarto form and lead pencils lay near him at all times. How painful it must have been for the animated, easily impatient man to be obliged to wait for every answer, to make a pause in every moment of conversation, during which, as it were, thought was condemned to come to a standstill! He always followed the hand of the writer with hungry eyes and comprehended what was written at a glance instead of reading it. . . . The conversation at first turned, as usual, on domestic affairs--the journey and sojourn, my relations with Hummel, and matters of that kind. Beethoven asked about Goethe's health with extraordinary solicitude and we were able to make the best of reports, since only a few days before the great poet had written in my album.