#8 Without Society’s Soundtracks

This week’s newsletter is about the story of one of the most known and admired composers in classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven and about how he became so deaf to the point he couldn’t hear the notes of his instruments or the singer’s voice and how it later impacted his personal life and career as a musician.

As many of us might know, Beethoven was surprisingly stone deaf. It’s important to know that he wasn’t always deaf, it’s something that developed slowly. The cause is unknown but it is believed that his deafness was caused by syphilis, lead poisoning, typhus, or possibly even his habit of plunging his head into cold water to keep himself awake.

It started when he was just 26 with a buzzing and ringing sound in his ears that started irritating him. It steadily grew and became more and more noticeable even though he tried to keep it a secret. By 1812 when he was 44, Beethoven had gone completely deaf. His hearing ability had deteriorated so much that he couldn’t hear the sound of the instruments playing or the singers singing. Here’s an extract from a letter Beethoven wrote in 1801 to Dr Franz Gerhard Wegeler, one of his close friend.

“… For two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people “I am deaf”. If I belonged to any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession, it is a frightful state…”

He had to start using notebooks as a way to communicate with visitors who wrote down what they wanted to tell or ask him. And in the same way, Beethoven replied by writing his response in his notebook. These are now known as the “Conversation Books“.

Okay, so here’s the obvious question – if he was couldn’t hear at all then did he stop writing and composing music? – No. In fact, Beethoven created his greatest works including the Moonlight Sonata, his only opera Fidelio and six symphonies during this period.

The deafness worked as a gift for Beethoven musically because he couldn’t hear the “prevailing compositional fashions.” It was entirely him and his imaginations that led to his greatest pieces. Arthur Brooks, while discussing this in an article published in the Washington Post writes

“It seems a mystery that Beethoven became more original and brilliant as a composer in inverse proportion to his ability to hear his own — and others’ — music. But maybe it isn’t so surprising. As his hearing deteriorated, he was less influenced by the prevailing compositional fashions, and more by the musical structures forming inside his own head. His early work is pleasantly reminiscent of his early instructor, the hugely popular Josef Haydn. Beethoven’s later work became so original that he was, and is, regarded as the father of music’s romantic period.”

He ended up wrecking pianos by banging on them so hard to hear the notes. Beethoven had to go through a lot of struggle, frustration and isolation to achieve greatness and influence. His deafness forced him to become very private and only allowing selective friends to meet him.

This seems to be a very important lesson. Sometimes eliminating what society has to say from your ears does wonder. Beethoven proved that the outcomes of creative processes are better without the worldly clutter, even though it might take a toll on an individual’s mental health.

Deafness granted Beethoven complete artistic freedom – not being influenced by what other musicians are producing, not considering people’s comments about his work, just creating sound without even listening.