Beethoven’s Hair Goes Up For Auction Today
Ludwig van Beethoven is arguably the most famous classical composer of all time, though I guess he and Johann Sebastian Bach have a bit of a Beatles/Stones thing going on. His Symphony No. 5 in particular is off the chain. Dun-dun-dun DUN! Dun-dun-dun DUN! You know it. You love it. You’ve fumbled through it on a piano when “Für Elise” proved too difficult.
Anyway, the reason you are here now is because you saw the headline about a lock of Beethoven’s hair going up for auction today. In the words of Beethoven’s fellow music legends Metallica: Sad but true! This morning the London auction house Sotheby’s opened bidding on “a substantial lock of the composer’s grey and dark brown hair, evidently given by him to the pianist Anton Halm in 1826.” Initially Beethoven supposedly gave Halm some goat hair attempting to pass it off as his own before offering up the genuine article when Halm complained. The auctioneers assure us that “the present lock of hair is indisputably human.”
Here’s an excerpt from the Sotheby’s site explaining why old Ludwig deigned to provie Halm with a snippet of his famous follicles:
The pianist and composer Anton Halm (1789-1872) got to know Beethoven well, after meeting him in 1815 and playing for him frequently. The composer liked Halm’s bluff military manner and apparently bore him no ill-will even after Halm’s wayward piano playing in the Choral Fantasia in 1817 brought the performance to a halt. In 1826 Halm made an arrangement of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge op.133 for two pianos and it was evidently during this period that Beethoven gave him this lock.
Halm told Beethoven’s great biographer A.W. Thayer (presumably during Thayer’s stay in Vienna, 1859-1864) that, while at work on the Grosse Fuge in 1826, he had asked Beethoven’s factotum Carl Holz to secure a lock of Beethoven’s hair for his wife Maria. The hairs arrived a few days later, supposedly Beethoven’s, but in fact cut from a goat. When he had finished his arrangement of the fugue, Halm brought it and the hair to Beethoven. The composer was furious that his friend had been deceived, and promptly snipped off some hair and gave it to him, declaring it to be genuine.
Apparently back then it was customary to cut off a bit of someone’s hair when you visited them on their death bed to pay respects. There’s a whole book tracing the whereabouts of a separate snippet of Beethoven’s hair obtained by musician Ferdinand Hiller in this manner in 1827. I have no idea whether it was normal to request a lock of someone’s hair when they were still living. Maybe an expert can weigh in on this in the comments? In the meantime, you can have a look at the lock (which is definitely not goat hair) below and bid on it here, where there are further details on Beethoven and Halm’s strained relationship.