I'd heard about Chopin's heart, but I hadn't heard about Haydn's head. The former was enshrined in a Warsaw cathedral (with the rest of the body resting in Paris), while the latter was removed by an 18th-century stan and wasn't reunited with the remainder of the composer until 1954.
That's the kind of trivia you learn in Beethoven's Skull, a new book by Tim Rayborn — a writer and musician whose author photo shows him contemplating a lyre. It's billed as a compendium of "dark, strange, and fascinating tales from the world of classical music and beyond."
A fan of classical music is sure to find some good nuggets of knowledge in Beethoven's Skull, but the book is also apt to be frustrating. The bulk of the book is a chronological list of figures that Rayborn has dirt on, but as the author himself admits, "you may nave noticed a few big names missing." Rayborn's explanation for that is that the missing composers (including Bach, Wagner, and Stravinsky) were either amply covered in other books or they just "led pretty good lives."
That means we're left with a lot of musical whos — like Alessandro Poglietti (obliterated by Ottoman cannon fire), Charles-Valentin Alkan (killed by a falling coat rack), and Wallingford Riegger (died after getting tangled in two leashes during a dog fight). There are also chapters on "Magic in Music" ("Debussy apparently hobnobbed in occult circles"), "Plague and Penitence" (Rayborn finds some Renaissance music that may be about hashish), "Blood and Guts" (what did Vlad the Impaler have to do with music? not much, but we get seven pages on him anyway), and other subtopics.
Rayborn isn't afraid to gossip, which sounds juicy in theory but in actuality means he rehashes some very old canards: Vivaldi's unproven affairs with his teenage students, Salieri's supposed involvement with Mozart's death, and so forth. There's an image section in the middle, but it's largely the same old headshots we've been looking at for centuries.
So what's the story with Beethoven's skull? You won't find it in the entry on Beethoven: you have to page forward to the "Final Musical Oddities," where fortunately (since there's no index) it appears at the very end. It turns out that some fragments of Beethoven's skull were thought to have traveled all the way to San Jose...except that (spoiler alert) they turned out to be inauthentic. What an anticlimax.