Friday, February 17, 2012

Was Beethoven Really Deaf?

By Stefan Aune

Beethoven's struggle with hearing loss is one of the more widely known legends concerning the famous composer. The subject is approached almost reverently, and is treated as this mystical element of his history, because it means that Beethoven composed some of the world's most beautiful music without the use of his hearing. In fact, Beethoven suffered from tinnitus, a symptom (not a disease) that results in mild to severe ringing in the ears. Tinnitus can result from ear infections, damage to the ear canal, nasal allergies, wax build up, or complications from other diseases. Beethoven's tinnitus, and subsequent deafness, has been attributed to complications resulting from typhus or an auto-immune disorder. It was also found in his autopsy that he had a "distended inner ear" which developed lesions during his lifetime, contributing to his deafness.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven first noticed his hearing loss as early as 1801, when he began writing to friends expressing concern over the difficulties he was having in social and professional settings. From April - October 1802 Beethoven lived in the small town of Heiligenstadt on the orders of his doctor, learning to cope with his hearing loss. While living there he wrote a famous letter to his brothers in which he admits to contemplating suicide and resolves to overcome his hearing loss and continue to succeed professionally.

One of the more enduring legends regarding Beethoven's hearing loss is that at the premier of the Ninth Symphony Beethoven kept conducting after the piece had finished, and had to be turned around by one of the orchestra members so that he could see the thunderous applause resulting from the magnificent work. For anyone familiar with composition and conducting this story should ring false. Composers are intimately familiar with their works, and conductors are as well. If Beethoven was capable of conducting the symphony then he would have known exactly when it was over, and would not have continued to conduct past the end. It is more likely that Beethoven was simply on stage overseeing the performance, and had to be turned around in order to notice the incredibly enthusiastic audience response. Regardless, all accounts aggree that both the audience and orchestra were incredibly moved by the composer's inability to recognize the overwhelmingly positive response to the symphony, a work that many would consider to be Beethoven's finest.

Beethoven conducting
Biographer George Grove does an amazing job of describing the emotional intensity of the Ninth Symphony premiere:

The master, though placed in the midst of this confluence of music, heard nothing of it all and was not even sensible of the applause of the audience at the end of his great work, but continued standing with his back to the audience (and beating that time), till Fräulein Ungher, who had sung the contralto part, turned him, or induced him to turn around and face the people, who were still clapping their hands, and giving way to the greatest demonstrations of pleasure. His turning around, and the sudden conviction thereby forced on everybody that he had not done so before (because he could not hear what was going on) acted like an electric shock on all present, and a volcanic explosion of sympathy and admiration followed, which was repeated again and again, and seemed as if it would never end.

By 1814 Beethoven was almost entirely deaf, and had to rely on an ear-horn and conversation books in order to communicate. These conversation books have proved an invaluable insight into the life of the composer, illuminating conversations and discussions on a variety of topics. The fact that Beethoven is one of the most celebrated composers in history is what makes his hearing loss so profound. Beethoven's experience of music and composition was remarkably altered by his hearing loss, but that didn't keep him from composing some of the most enduring works of classical music.

1 comment:

  1. That just goes to show what a brilliant mind and talent he had. To produce such wonderful works of art and not be able to hear them brings me a sadness for his loss. The world and all of it's people were given a gift of such moving a story and such wonderful music. Too bad so many of us take such a normal thing as hearing for granted.