Experts examine memorabilia The mystery of Beethoven's curls
No sooner had Beethoven died than the run on his hair began. Souvenir hunters and admirers cut the curls from the composer's head. A look at history and new findings.
On 26 March 1827, there was a flurry of comings and goings at Schwarzspanierstraße 15 in Vienna. The news of the death of the 56-year-old composer Ludwig van Beethoven had spread like wildfire. Now it was time to say goodbye, and for some also to secure a memento. Gerhard von Breuning, son of the librettist Stephan von Breuning, who was Ludwig van Beethoven's childhood friend and executor of his estate, wrote down his childhood memories of the last years of Beethoven's life when he was 60 years old. As a 14-year-old, he wanted his father to give him a lock of the composer's hair as a souvenir. His father put him off, promising him that they would go to the funeral home on the day of the funeral, and then Gerhard would be allowed to cut off a lock of his hair. Not before, so as not to disfigure the corpse.
Breuning Jr. wrote in 1874: "On 29 March, when I went with my father to the funeral home and wanted to cut off some of Beethoven's hair - my father had only allowed me to do this towards the end of the funeral so as not to disfigure the appearance earlier - we found that strange hands had already cut them all off.
The Bald Composer
So on the day of the funeral, the boy goes with his father to the laid-out Beethoven and discovers to his horror that the dead composer is practically bald. In the two and a half days after Beethoven's death, quite a few souvenir hunters had been there with scissors to quickly and secretly cut off a lock of hair. "You can still sense the child's disappointment in the old man's report," says Julia Ronge, curator at the Beethoven House in Bonn.
Ronge knows of 14 curls in the possession of the Beethoven House in Bonn; she knows of seven in the USA and there are also some in Austria: Ronge estimates that there are a total of 25 known in literature.
Hair locks as a gift
Giving locks of hair as gifts or dedicating them to each other was common in the 19th century among friends or to admirers. It was not uncommon for the hair to be set like jewellery, presented in a frame, given together with small portraits. And, especially when it came to famous personalities, they were revered as precious objects, mementos.
From the middle of the 19th century onwards, Beethoven curls appeared in the trade, Ronge tells us, often with a certificate. For example, the Graz composer Anselm Hüttenbrenner, who wrote a detailed account of Beethoven's death, attested to the authenticity of several curls that he himself had cut off after the death of the revered master. Anton Gräffer, who listed Beethoven's musical estate, also provided five hair samples that he himself had cut from the corpse's head with a certificate. Several Beethoven locks in the possession of the Beethoven House are provided with certificates of authenticity.
Certificate to testify to authenticity
Beethoven gave away his own curls as a gift to friends during his lifetime, such as the one he gave to Nanette Streicher. This is the strand that served as one of the hair samples for the current genome study. The Beethoven House also owns two curls with a certificate from Gräffer. Both were a gift from Joseph Joachim when he was elected honorary president of the Beethoven House Association. Probably the most bizarre piece is a landscape created in 1827 from Beethoven's hair and framed in thick gold. The Beethoven House collection also includes a piano reduction of the second finale of "Fidelio" with portrait medallion and lock of hair (1841).
For at least two decades, Beethoven's locks have been studied by researchers. Ronge refers to the study by Christian Reiter, the most important publication on the subject comes from Rusell Martin from the year 2000, who dedicated himself to the so-called Hiller curl. Among other things, an extremely high lead content was found. In the lock of hair that was allegedly cut off in 1827, a hundred times the normal lead value was determined. Contrary to expectations, analyses found only negligible traces of mercury. Thus, according to the researchers, it was clear that Beethoven did not suffer from syphilis, as had been assumed in many music-historical documents at the end of the 20th century.
Current genome study
Eight hair samples have now been submitted to the current genome study by the University of Cambridge, the Beethoven Center San Jose and the American Beethoven Society, the KU Leuven, the company FamilyTreeDNA, the University Hospital Bonn, the Beethoven-Haus Bonn and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. First finding: "At least two" of the locks of hair, according to the study, did not come from Beethoven, including the one that the 15-year-old musician Ferdinand Hiller is said to have cut off.
Incidentally, this is the curl that supported the thesis of Beethoven's lead poisoning. The Hiller curl came from a woman. Five samples have been identified as authentic, including one from the Beethoven House. Beethoven's entire genome was sequenced from the "Stumpff curl" from the collection of Kevin Brown, a member of the American Beethoven Society. The curl proved to be the best preserved.
(Original text: Thomas Kliemann / Translation: Mareike Graepel)