Ludwig van Beethoven’s deafness is probably the best-known physical ailment of any composer in history. Because it caused him untold suffering and affected his work, it has become an unshakeable part of the legend surrounding the man and his music.
It’s often presented as an obstacle he had to overcome, while his reaction to hearing loss is spoken of as a struggle or battle from which he emerged heroically, having triumphed over a threatening enemy. It has even been said that after Beethoven could no longer hear, he retreated into the privacy of his imagination, heard music in his head, then wrote it down. Yet as our understanding of disability has been reshaped over the years, it is becoming evident that much has been misunderstood.
Even though more than a hundred diagnoses have been offered, there is still no clear understanding of what caused Beethoven’s hearing loss or even when it began. He claimed to have started noticing it in 1796, when he was 25, but if his experience is like that of other people who gradually lose their hearing, it probably began several years earlier, perhaps even before he moved to Vienna from Bonn in 1792.
Although it has been claimed that he was ‘stone deaf’ by the time he wrote the Fifth Symphony in his mid-thirties, there is a report of him listening with an ear trumpet while his nephew Karl played the piano and correcting his mistakes as late as 1820, when he was nearing the age of 50.
Perhaps our image of the composer isolated in his deafness, working out music in his mind, is outdated. Beethoven always spent a great deal of time improvising at the piano – not just in public performance but as part of the way he composed. The keyboard was a lifeline for Beethoven in his deafness. In early 1818, he received a Broadwood piano (pictured left) as a gift from the English piano builder. He treasured the instrument for the rest of his life.
Two years later, the composer took the unusual step of having an amplifier – the so-called ‘hearing machine’ – built for his piano. This was a concave metallic resonator, possibly made from zinc, that was placed on top of the instrument. Beethoven used this device or later versions of it until his death, suggesting that even in his final years he could hear well enough to obtain some benefit from it.
A recent recreation, for the first time, of both the Broadwood piano and Beethoven’s hearing machine suggests a fascinating new possibility: that the tactile contact Beethoven experienced with the new English pianos became more important to him as his hearing grew worse.
As Belgian pianist Tom Beghin discovered when he recorded the late Beethoven sonatas on this piano, the action of the Broadwood was heavier than that of Viennese pianos. The keys were ‘spongy’: they sank deep into the instrument and required that each note be separately articulated. Yet the result was a sound that was somewhat murky compared to the clear, bell-like tones of the Viennese instruments. It is unlikely that Beethoven was able to hear this instrument better, so why was he so devoted to it?
The secret, it appears, was in the touch. The Broadwood was constructed so the sounding board connected directly to the instrument’s outer frame, conveying powerful vibrations where Beethoven needed them most: at the keyboard and through the floor at his feet.
With the hearing machine in place to amplify the sound and vibrations even further, the instrument became a physical extension of his body. He could feel its resonance to his core. Given this, it seems unlikely that the loud dynamics in Beethoven’s music were a response to deafness, as is often suggested. It seems even less likely when you also consider that in his thirties Beethoven suffered from loudness recruitment.
This condition, in which some sounds register as much louder than they actually are, is familiar to people with hearing loss. As a result, Beethoven plugged his ears with cotton to make playing the piano bearable. So if anything, loudness recruitment would have made loud music painful for him to listen to.
And it was the instruments at his disposal, rather than the frequencies he could or couldn’t hear, which affected the pitch range of Beethoven’s music. The mighty Hammerklavier Sonata (1818) provides a striking example of this. The first three movements were written for a six-octave Viennese piano, extending from the F two and a half octaves below middle C to the F three and half octaves above. Beethoven used this full range in the Hammerklavier.
But just before he began the final movement, he received the Broadwood. The range of the music shifted to fit the new instrument’s lower six-octave range, which instead extended to the Cs three octaves either side of middle C. So the entire sonata could not be played on either of the instruments Beethoven had available while he was writing it. A more modern piano would be needed for that.
Despite the remarkable lengths Beethoven went to in order to feel the music, there was a period during which he composed in near total deafness. It is probably safe to say that it includes only the relatively small number of late works from about 1815. That includes public works like Symphony No. 9 and the Missa Solemnis, but is dominated by the intimate last five string quartets and last five piano sonatas. These have long been considered among his most challenging and rewarding works.
From the outset they provoked extraordinary responses. In the five years after its premiere in 1824, more was written about the Ninth Symphony than had been written about any of his previous compositions. Unprecedented effort was put into trying to understand his music. Many of the quartets and sonatas received unusually extensive reviews that helped readers come to terms with compositions many of them found baffling.
Those reviews have helped to establish some of the very beliefs now in question. In particular, Joseph Fröhlich’s long review of the Ninth, published in 1828, the year after Beethoven died, suggested for the first time that the tragedy-joy narrative of the symphony was Beethoven’s musical autobiography.
It showed that Beethoven had triumphed over deafness. Works that follow a similar outline (like the Fifth Symphony), or that glorify heroism (the Eroica), were understood in the same way, even though Beethoven wrote those two pieces when he could still hear music quite well. It’s even suggested that the works in which Beethoven does not present this titanic battle are less important.
The most significant thing to be learned from studying the history of Beethoven’s deafness, however, may be that his music has a much broader emotional range than he is often given credit for. His oeuvre includes the Pastoral Symphony with its relaxed evocations of the countryside; beautiful and lyrical songs from the cycle An die ferne Geliebte, and delightful and impish small piano pieces like the late Bagatelles, most of which Beethoven wrote when he was using the Broadwood and the hearing machine.
These works, written in successive decades as his deafness grew more advanced, show a composer whose technique and emotional range continually broadened even as his hearing failed. Beethoven did not triumph over deafness. He learned to work with it and around it.
Words by Robin Wallace, author of ‘Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss and Discovery. This article first appeared in the September 2018 issue of BBC Music Magazine.