PSO Book Club: What A Few Strands of Hair Reveal – Yonca Karakilic

What better way to start the New Year than with a good book and fellow music lovers to discuss it with?

The next meeting of the PSO Book Club is coming up on Tuesday, January 19 at 6:00 PM. PSO’s David Sogg (bassoon) and WQED-FM’s Jim Cunningham will be at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland to lead a discussion on Beethoven’s Hair : An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved by Russell Martin.

Martin’s book chronicles the journey of a lock of hair, cut from Beethoven’s head shortly after his death by a young musician named Ferdinand Hiller. The memento stays with the Hiller family for a few generations, somewhat mysteriously changes hands during the peak years of Nazi persecution in a small town in Denmark, and finally ends up at a Sotheby’s auction in London in the 1990s. I’ll let you find out the rest of the story from the book. Suffice to say that there is state-of-the-art DNA analysis involved, and we are one step closer to understanding what may have caused Beethoven’s loss of hearing and other lifelong ailments.

The book club meeting, along with the weekend’s concerts featuring Emmanuel Ax in the brilliant “Emperor “Concerto, kicks off our multi-year Beethoven Project. In year one, our exploration will encompass Beethoven the man and the artist: Alongside insights into major works such as the Symphonies Nos. 3 and 9, we will also look at Beethoven in his time and in light of decades of myth-making (Think, heroic images of Beethoven with a stern, determined expression and unruly locks of hair symbolizing his creative powers). While we’re at it, check out a cool Explore & Engage feature on Beethoven & hearing loss created in collaboration with UPMC’s Center for Audiology and Hearing Aids. Medical experts affiated with the Center will also join a panel discussion on the topic at the Concert Prelude an hour prior to the concerts on stage at Heinz Hall.

So, back to Beethoven’s Hair. No worries if you haven’t picked up a copy of the book yet: If you are intrigued but don’t have the time go through some 200-odd pages, Carnegie Library’s Teen Department holds an abridged – and yes, teen – version entitled The Mysteries of Beethoven’s Hair. It is authored by Martin in collaboration with his wife, Lydia Nibley, and features some interesting photography by our own David Sogg’s father. In any case, there is always plenty of interesting discussion going on – just remember to call our friends at the library at 412-622-3105 to register and come join us on Tuesday!

Hope to see you there…


The remaining strands of hair after DNA analysis in the original locket they were stored in, now on display at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, San Jose, CA.

6 thoughts on “PSO Book Club: What A Few Strands of Hair Reveal – Yonca Karakilic”

  • Thanks Doug, and there’s a lot going on in the Hall as well – I just received our exhibit items, including a fascinating replica of the ear trumpets used in Beethoven’s time.. All very exciting!

  • It IS truly an amazing story. And for me there are several connections, nearly as full of coincidence as the story of the hair. I am FROM San Jose, and go there approximately annually. I’m a member of the Beethoven Center, and my father is a board member. Of course, I’ve seen the hair — but not touched it. Nobody does. And I have a bunch of Danish relatives, and have spent a lot of time in and around Copenhagen. However, none of them can shed further light on how the hair came to Denmark. And please don’t ask me about my college senior thesis on Beethoven’s Fidelio — too embarrassing.
    I have more information to discuss at the Jan. 19th session. Since the book came out in 2000, more incredibly precise scientific analysis of the hair has been done in an attempt to further diagnose Beethoven’s final illness. You’ll have to show up if you want more details.

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