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Ludwig van Beethoven

The composer who couldn't hear

Created date

October 14th, 2014
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven

We’ve all heard it. Opening with those familiar and inspiring hammer blows, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the quintessence of Romantic composition; it is also the musical embodiment of its creator—passionate, intense, and tormented.

Those who knew Ludwig van Beethoven likely would have used a series of labels to describe him—teacher, maestro, misanthrope. His friends and family, business associates, and social acquaintances could have applied any one of these to portray the various facets of his personality.

He had his admirers and, certainly, his enemies. But whatever people thought of him personally, few would have quibbled about his brilliance as a composer; he was a genius.

Surrounded by music

Born in 1770 in Bonn (then part of the Holy Roman Empire), Beethoven grew up in a world of music. A tenor in the court orchestra of the Elector of Cologne, his father Johann started teaching him the violin and piano well before the age of seven. 

Soon, Beethoven was proficient enough with keyboard instruments that, in 1779, his father sent him to study with Christian Neefe, an organist in the Elector’s orchestra. Over the next several years, he assisted Neefe in his own work while studying the technical and artistic aspects of composition.

Beethoven’s appetite for knowledge seemed as insatiable as his capacity for work. By the age of 13, he had already composed three piano sonatas, collectively entitled Kurfurst

Everything went smoothly for the budding musician until 1787, when his mother died. With his father battling alcoholism, Beethoven found himself saddled with the care of his two younger brothers.

To make ends meet, he gave piano lessons and played viola in the Elector’s orchestra. Though these added demands were quite stressful, he never lost sight of his professional development.

Benefactors step in

His chance came in the early 1790s when the great composer Joseph Haydn agreed to take him under his wing in Vienna. Subsidized by the generous patronage of nobles who recognized his talent, Beethoven focused his efforts on mastering counterpoint composition as well as advanced playing techniques for the piano and violin.

When he wasn’t studying, he gave recitals in the salons of Vienna, where he typically performed improvisational pieces and sometimes the fugues of J.S. Bach. 

Beethoven was coming into his own as a composer and had earned a solid reputation as a true artist. Around this time, he also came down with a near deadly case of typhus and, shortly thereafter, began hearing a loud ringing in his ears.

Nonetheless, he kept working at a feverish pace. Between 1798 and 1801, he had completed his first two symphonies and two more piano sonatas—Pathetique and the hauntingly beautiful Quasi una fantasia (better known as the Moonlight Sonata).

Still, in the midst of his success, Beethoven was a prisoner to hearing loss, which only worsened with time. According to his biographer Jan Swafford, he complained of how “that jealous demon, my wretched health, has put a nasty spoke in my wheel...for the last three years, my hearing has become weaker and weaker.”

He desperately sought the assistance of physicians, who subjected him to laughable treatments ranging from elixirs and poultices to mineral baths and countryside retreats. Almost completely deaf by 1802, he abandoned any hope of recovery.

‘Heroic Period’

So began what musicologists call Beethoven’s “Heroic Period,” during which his compositions became increasingly grandiose and explosive. There was, for instance, his Third Symphony Eroica and his fiery Fifth Symphony, both indicative of the tempestuous energy and emotional sensitivity that infused his music. 

Amazingly, he didn’t need to hear. Each masterful movement in his symphonies, each note in his sonatas, was crystal clear in his head.

“[I]n my head,” he explained, “I begin to elaborate the work in its breadth, its narrowness, its height, its depth...I hear and see the image in front of me from every angle, as if it had been cast, and only the labor of writing it down remains.”

This was how Beethoven heard his music and, more important, how he managed to survive. His “art alone” had deterred him from ending what otherwise would have been a life of misery.

Even as his health declined, Beethoven continued to compose, completing what many consider to be his magnum opus.

On May 7, 1824, he conducted the premier of his Ninth Symphony at Vienna’s Theater am Karntnertor. At the end of the performance, the packed house erupted with rapturous applause. 

The deaf conductor could hear none of it. Not until someone turned him around to face the audience did he notice the people’s jubilant reaction. 

His legacy as one of the world’s finest artists was now etched in stone. 

Just three years later, the maestro was bedridden and in the advanced stages of liver disease. On March 26, 1827, as a thunderstorm raged over his home in Vienna, he died knowing that, in his 56 years on earth, he had accomplished what he had set out to do.

“I will seize Fate by the throat,” he once declared. “[It] shall certainly not bend and crush me completely.”