The Mysteries of Beethoven's Hair book cover image

The Mysteries of Beethoven's Hair

  • 1595

By: Russell Martin & Lydia Nibley

National bestseller reworked for middle-graders

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.

Author's Note

Writers have as many ways of connecting with interesting stories as there are stories to be told. The inspiration for this book came from a short newspaper article we saw about two Beethoven enthusiasts from Arizona who had purchased a lock of the composer's hair and were about to initiate a series of forensic tests to see what the hair might reveal about Beethoven's life and death.

Clearly there was more to this story. If the testing was successful, what would it reveal? Why were these two men embarking on this unusual quest? What had happened to the hair in all the years between the time it was cut from Beethoven's head and the time they purchased the hair.

Our biggest challenge in writing this story was the extensive detective work necessary to track the hair through time. Some of the discoveries fell into place as one document led to another, and as one source of information led to a name of date that could be traced. Other breakthroughs took many months to evolve. There are remaining mysteries to be solved. We hope that the publication of this book will generate more discoveries.

Author & Illustrator Bios:

Russell Martin, 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, author

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.

Read more about Russell & Lydia.

Awards & Honors:

  • NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students K-12
  • AJL Sydney Taylor Notable Books for Young Readers
  • CCBC Choices
  • NYSRA Charlotte Award Suggested Reading List

Editorial Reviews:

School Library Journal

Based on Martin's adult book Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and Scientific Mystery Solved (Broadway), 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.

Foreword Reviews

It's hard to believe that adult TV series like "CSI" and "NCIS" are overlooked in their all-hours re-runs by older children. And, although they may act as (an unrealistic) deterrent to a future in crime, they might also unwittingly be relating the message that discoveries can only be accomplished through the aid of expensive machines and databases. Beethoven's Hair, which was published in an adult version in 2001 and became a Washington Post Book of the Year, brings forensics back into the realm of amateurs. The two men responsible for tracing the origins and journey of a lock of Beethoven's hair are professionals in their own fields, but their discovery is based purely on the passion of layperson. They loved Beethoven's music first and foremost. The fact that one of them was real estate developer and the other a Mexican American physician named "Che" Guevara only adds to the charm.

The story itself - from Beethoven's deathbed to a small town in Denmark to a collector in Arizona is a fascinating history lesson. The fact that Beethoven himself seemed to be interested, even passionate that the world recognize and unravel his mystery adds tension and brings the story to a satisfying conclusion. Beethoven's Hair is a wonderfully grown-up addition to middle school libraries.

The Horn Book

In 1827, while paying his last respects, composer-in-training Ferdinand Hiller snipped a lock of Ludwig van Beethoven's hair, a customary practice at the time. 1994, two American collectors paid 3,600 British pounds for that physical remnant of their idol. Mysteries dogging the memento are the focus of this absorbing and accessible book, adapted from Martin's work for adults, Beethoven's Hair. The text concurrently tells three stories: Beethoven's troubled life and times; the collectors' modern-day quest to prove the cause of his death; and the keepsake's journey through history, from Beethoven's deathbed in Austria to World War II Resistance Denmark to auction at Sotheby's. Along the way, many questions are raised. Did Beethoven die of natural causes? Were Hiller's descendents persecuted by the Nazis? Or were they Nazi sympathizers? And most important, what connections can readers themselves make among events from the past? The answers aren't clear-cut, and Martin and Nibley are careful not to present speculation as fact, instead teasing out different conclusions that could be drawn based on that which is known. The text is effectively echoed by the many well-captioned black-and-white art reproductions, showing Beethoven's progression from bright young performer to brooding composer to desperately ill man. Additionally, photographs of such artifacts as Beethoven's death mask and the curl of hair itself bring tangibility to this intriguing story. An index is included.

NSTA Recommends

Can you help solve the 200-year-old mystery about what caused this great musician’s poor health? After an interesting passage through history, a lock of Beethoven’s hair was analyzed with modern forensics and problem solving to reach a definitive answer.

With the appeal of CSI, the book begins with the story of Beethoven—a young man whose wild hair flew in all directions as he traveled through Vienna. Vivid descriptions and vintage photographs will lure even those without a disposition for science into the mystery, and the strange chain of evidence, as a lock cut from the composer's hair on his deathbed comes into the possession of modern Americans.

This NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book for 2010 is one that middle and secondary readers may find hard to put down. As they follow the investigation, they'll learn about Beethoven, forensics, and the scientific method.

Children's Literature Database

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 from the authors clarifies aspects of the art of narrative nonfiction.


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More information on Beethoven

Life and Works
Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies
Ludwig van Beethoven's Website

Beethoven's 9 Symphonies

Beethoven's Hair Adult Book and Movie
Beethoven's Hair
Bullfrog Films: Beethoven's Hair


ISBN: 978-1-57091-714-1

ISBN: 978-1-57091-715-8

ISBN: 978-1-60734-781-1 EPUB
ISBN: 978-1-60734-135-2 PDF
For information about purchasing E-books, click here.

Ages: 10 and up
Page count: 128
6 x 9

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