Dome of Spheres

Happy Hallowe'en from Ludwig van Beethoven's skull! The photo was taken by J. B. Rottmayer in 1863, when Beethoven's remains (and Franz Schubert's) were exhumed under the auspices of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in order that they might be reinterred in more suitably monumental fashion in Vienna's Währing cemetery. (In 1888, the Währing cemetery having closed, the Gesellschaft would upgrade Ludwig yet again, to Vienna's Zentralfriedhof, where the body resides to this day.) The skull is incomplete—at some point (probably in 1863), someone (probably Gerhard von Breuning, son of Stephen von Breuning, one of Beethoven's friends and biographers) removed two bone fragments that are now in the collection of San José State University's Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies. Also, at some point (probably during Beethoven's autopsy in 1827) the ossicles, the bones of the middle ear, were also removed, and subsequently disappeared. (The saga of Beethoven's skull was traced by William Meredith in the Summer/Winter 2005 issue of The Beethoven Journal.)

Richard Wagner, in his 1870 book on Beethoven, in language reminiscent of Romantic consdierations of Beethoven's deafness, pointed to the size of Beethoven's skull as proof of his privileged access to an interior world of inspiration:
It used to be held as a physiological axiom that for high intellectual endowments a large brain should be enclosed in a thin delicate skull, to facilitate an immediate cognition of external things; nevertheless, upon the inspection of his remains some years ago, we saw, in conformity with the entire skeleton, a skull of altogether unusual thickness and firmness. Thus nature guarded a brain of excessive delicacy, so that it might look inwards, and carry on in undisturbed repose the world contemplation of a great heart. This supremely robust constitution enclosed and preserved an inner world of such transparent delicacy, that, if left defenceless to the rough handling of the outer world, it would have dissolved gently and evaporated[.]
Over at Soho the Dog, Arnold Schoenberg (who figures prominently in chapter 6 of The First Four Notes) offers his own holiday contribution.

The Squeaky Wheel

Despite recent progress in identifying genes underlying deafness, there are still relatively few mouse models of specific forms of human deafness. Here we describe the phenotype of the Beethoven (Bth) mouse mutant and a missense mutation in Tmc1 (transmembrane cochlear-expressed gene 1). Progressive hearing loss (DFNA36) and profound congenital deafness (DFNB7/B11) are caused by dominant and recessive mutations of the human ortholog, TMC1 (ref. 1), for which Bth and deafness (dn) are mouse models, respectively.
From S. Vreugde et al., “Beethoven, a mouse model for dominant, progressive hearing loss DFNA36," Nature Genetics vol. 30, no. 3 (2002). The significance is that both the Bth mutation, which the authors describe, and the previously discovered dn mutation occur on the same gene (Tmc1), which has a known human homologue (TMC1). In other words, the degeneration of cochlear hair cells, which leads to the gradual onset of certain kinds of deafness, has a genetic basis that can be modeled in the lab. “Beethoven," the authors conclude, “may thus provide insight into the factors needed for long-term survival of hair cells and may increase our understanding of the hair-cell degeneration assumed to be associated with progressive hearing loss with ageing (presbyacusis) in a large proportion of the human population."

Font of Trivia

The font on the cover of The First Four Notes is called Humboldt Fraktur. Created in 1938 by German designer J. A. Hieronymus Rhode, better known as Hiero Rhode, it was one of the last new blackletter fonts to appear in Germany before the Nazi regime mandated a switch to Roman fonts, partially because blackletter would impede communication with newly-occupied territories, and partially because Adolf Hitler was annoyed by it.

Humboldt Fraktur was named for the Prussian explorer, naturalist, and writer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), whose accounts of a 1799-1804 voyage to the Americas made him one of the most celebrated scientific celebrities of his time. Humboldt was present at the unveiling of the Beethoven statue in Bonn in 1845, at which the royal family and other dignitaries were situated behind the statue, such that, when it was unveiled, Beethoven seemed to be turning his back on them. Humboldt, the story goes, smoothed over the faux pas by noting that Beethoven had always been ill-mannered anyway.

The cover of The First Four Notes was designed by Peter Mendelsund, whose visual acuity is rivaled by his writing.

Toronto the Good

The Globe and Mail assesses The First Four Notes as one of fifteen must-read non-fiction books this fall.

Five-String Symphony

James McKinney, flatpicking at fate, with Becky Jeffers on bass. Based on an arrangement by Larry McNeely. (Mike Iverson does a clawhammer translation here.)

They got a crazy way of loving there

In The Kansas City Star, Steve Paul highlights the upcoming release of The First Four Notes, flatteringly categorizing it under “high culture."