11 August 2010

Tragic Tales: Ludwig Loses His Hearing

By Carrie Lofty

Composer and musician Ludwig van Beethoven was only 26 years old when he began to lose his hearing. By this time he had already established himself as a fine pianist and teacher, but he had only published a few piano sonatas. His first symphony would not be published and performed until 1801. Thus his early-onset deafness affected almost the entire span of his musical career.

His symptoms began as a minor annoyance but developed into full-blown tinnitus, a ringing noise medically defined as "the perception of sound within the human ear in the absence of corresponding external sound" (Wikipedia). Historians and doctors have since debated the cause of his tinnitus, which could have originated with syphilis, typhus, lupus, or even lead poisoning.

(I adore this picture of Gary Oldman as Beethoven from Immortal Beloved. It helped inspire my June 2010 Carina Press release, SONG OF SEDUCTION. There is nothing sexier than a man consumed by his passions!)

Beethoven admitted to his growing deafness as early as 1801, when he described the difficulties he had in appreciating music and following conversations. After retreating to Austria in an to attempt to come to terms with his condition, he wrote to his brothers--the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he vowed to live life through his art. This initiated his prolific and profound "Middle Period" of composition, but marked a significant decline in his ability to perform in public.

Because public performances and piano competition had been a lucrative part of his income--a financial mainstay of his contemporaries--he suffered lapses into poverty when between patrons. Frustration and embarrassment may have contributed to his reputation for being grumpy, loud, unmanned, and generally unpleasant. His close friends knew the cause, but few others did.

After a disastrous interpretation of his 5th Symphony in 1811, Beethoven never played in public again. He was completely deaf by 1814. Quite famously, he could not hear the overwhelming applause when his masterful 9th Symphony was debuted in 1824. Here the scene is portrayed in Immortal Beloved:

Although Beethoven left us with a staggering catalog of some of the best music ever composed, he was unable to appreciate his creations as we do. He heard his music only in his mind. To communicate with people, he used notebooks that continue to offer musical scholars priceless insight into his opinions and thought processes. But Anton Schindler, an associate and early biographer of Beethoven, burned 264 of the 400 notebooks in an attempt to clean up the composer's image and maintain a sense of aura around his process--so not even that aspect of Beethoven's tale escaped a tragic ending.


Jeannie Lin said...

>>But Anton Schindler, an associate and early biographer of Beethoven, burned 264 of the 400 notebooks in an attempt to clean up the composer's image

And this footnote seems the most tragic of all! Beethoven is so much the bad boy rock star of that time.

Carrie Lofty said...

I know! The nerve of Schindler. As a music lover and historian, I feel it's just about the worst possible action he could've taken. He may as well have burned Beethoven's early works too--you know, early stuff is never as good anyway. Gah!

Keira Soleore said...

Ah, those well-meaning (aka misbegotten) folks. How dare he take away from thousands the truth of who Beethoven was? (Jeannie, here's another distortion of historical facts--by burning.)

I loved and cried so much as I watch IMMORTAL BELOVED. That tragic scene where the orchestra goes awry as he tries to conduct is heartrending.

He didn't need any of his other senses, but he did need his hearing, and that was the one sense he lost. And yet...he didn't fall into a fit of melancholia and off himself. He poured his anguish into his music. What a survivor!

As to bad behavior from frustration, it's like Helen Keller.

Danielle C. said...

Reminds me of how Charlotte Brontë burned Emily's writing's after the latter's death. If only she had known how different the verdict of posterity would be from the condemnation of their contemporaries...

Did Schindler destroy the notebooks to protect Beethoven against misunderstandings or to shield his privacy, or because he thought they did not live up to his reputation?

Genella deGrey said...

I wonder if he heard the music in his mind with even more clarity than how it is written, sort of like how we can see our characters living and breathing inside our heads more so than the page can translate.

librarypat said...

What a shame he could not hear his works being performed. That he could still write them hearing them only in his mind is incredible. It is criminal that Schindler burned all those books. What irreplaceable information was lost.

Thank you for an informative post and the video link.