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SAN JOSE — Tristan Begg was an anthropology student at UC Santa Cruz and a Beethoven fanatic when he volunteered as a docent at San Jose State University’s Beethoven center in the summer of 2009.
He would pull out the drawer holding a lock of hair and tell visitors, “This is real” and that it once was on the head of the greatest composer who ever lived, the one whose music changed Begg’s life when he heard the first notes of Moonlight Sonata on Christmas morning at age 17.
“It was instantaneous. I was astounded. I’ve never heard anything like it,” he said. “It was an instant sort of obsession.”
Now, 14 years later, Begg, a Ph.D student at the University of Cambridge, is the lead author on a genome research study that debunked the story he once told. The hair is a fake.
The findings, published this week in the journal Current Biology, revealed new insights about the life and death of Ludwig van Beethoven. Five other locks of hair were authenticated, including another one recently acquired by San Jose State. Just not the one Begg had proudly shown visitors more than a decade ago.
“The project was a very sobering experience in learning not to trust your gut,” Begg said in a phone interview Thursday from England, describing his disappointment over the lost link to the lock — and why he has started listening to the Ghostbusters theme instead of his favorite symphonies. “Just go on the data, and it’s much less fun that way.”
Indeed, the genetic data proved, the hair that was supposed to belong to Beethoven’s famous tousled mop actually came from an unidentified woman with Jewish heritage.
The imposter — named the “Hiller Lock” for the man who ostensibly was first to acquire it — is now relegated to a vault at San Jose State.
And Russell Martin, the author of “Beethoven’s Hair,” which focused on the San Jose State specimen and was translated into 19 languages, may have to update his 2000 tome.
It was the second time a piece of the Beethoven collection at San Jose State University has been unmasked: Fragments of a skull believed to belong to Beethoven were discredited in 2016.
The items were kept on the fifth floor of San Jose State’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library in the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, which houses the largest collection of Beethoven materials outside of Europe.
William Meredith, the first director of the Beethoven Center, acquired the “Hiller Lock” in 1994 when it came up for auction at Sotheby’s in London — one of numerous supposed locks of Beethoven’s hair snipped from the composer’s head by friends in his dying days as a remembrance.
Ferdinand Hiller was an aspiring musician and just 15 when he clipped the maestro’s hair the day after his death. Hiller gave it to his son, Paul, who in 1911 supposedly transferred it to a new reliquary.
In the early 1990s, there was no accurate DNA testing on locks of hair, and although there were gaps in the hair’s provenance, four San Jose State donors, including the late Ira Brilliant and Dr. Alfred Guevara in Texas, purchased it for $7,300.
“They said, ‘We have got to figure out everything we can from the lock of hair,’ ” Meredith said. “They’re not just viewing it as a relic, but what does it tell us about Beethoven’s life?”
They tried collecting a DNA sample from it in 1999 but were unable to, so the Hiller Lock remained on display, and in the years that followed, Begg — the young volunteer — and others continued to show it to visitors.
In 2014, Begg was a grad student studying geometric morphometrics at the University of Tubingen in Germany looking for a research project. As a student in the Ancient DNA department, he came up with a plan.
“This is my craziest idea yet,” he told his adviser. “But I used to volunteer at this Beethoven center, and maybe we can sequence his locks of hair.”
The idea wasn’t so crazy after all, his adviser said, so Begg flew home to San Jose, where he grew up and graduated from Lynbrook High. He met with Meredith at the Flames restaurant next to the library, and the research began.
Through auctions and private sales, Meredith and the researchers acquired or borrowed seven more hair samples. And several hairs from the Hiller Lock were put under the microscope.
Begg did much of the lab work himself in the German university’s cleanroom, blaring Beethoven, as the hair samples dissolved in solution. A strong feeling of communion washed over him — working with hair samples he was certain were Beethoven’s, absorbing the music he created more than two centuries ago.
“I thought it was him. Shows you what I know,” Begg said. “So that sort of ruins the poetry.”
The first lab results came back in 2016 — but they were sworn to secrecy until the research project was complete.
San Jose State, meanwhile, quietly took the lock off display. Meredith came up with a theory.
“Once we found out that this was a Jewish woman, I thought, I bet something happened to it, and Paul Hiller took some hair from his wife, who was an opera singer named Sophie Lion, and replaced the Beethoven hair with her hair and put it in there and then wrote a new inscription,” Meredith said, “and the whole thing was all sealed up, and it stayed that way.”
He can’t be sure, but Meredith doesn’t consider it a con.
The Hillers “never tried to sell it. They never gave it to one of their sons,” he said. “I think that they were frankly embarrassed that something had happened to it and that it would look like they had been careless with something that’s precious. So I think that was the reason for the substitution.”
Meredith said the Hiller lock might come out again on display to tell its own story. Just exactly who the lock belongs to remains a mystery. It’s one that Begg will not pursue.
At age 32, he is looking for a job in archeology and trying to muster the courage to listen to his favorite composer again.
“When I get back to Beethoven, that’s going to be a very, very, very private thing, probably a very emotional thing,” Begg said. “And I haven’t done that yet.”
He’s proud of his work and hopes that if Beethoven is “looking down on us, he knows which locks of hair are real and which ones are not. So I would think, hope, he’s a little bit more at peace.”
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