Understanding Beethoven and his disability

March 29, 1995|By Dennis Bartel

WITH THE success of the movie "Immortal Beloved," Ludwig van Beethoven has re-entered the public consciousness with the same here-now insistence as the two-chord opening of his "Eroica" Symphony.

This is good. The music of this early 19th century German son of the Enlightenment is, for many, like aural iron for tired blood. Beethoven gives strength.

But just as Beethoven was often misunderstood in life, so he is misunderstood by some now that he has achieved Hollywood afterlife. The great composer's re-appearance has provoked one question about him that I've heard more often than all others: "How could Beethoven compose such great music -- and so much of it -- when he was deaf?"

The same question, if posed about an aurally challenged composer of today, might sound insensitive -- even offensive. How far removed is the implication of this question (that deaf people can't do certain things) from the underlying sentiment of the racial statements that recently ignited semantic fires at Rutgers University?

At least, the question "How could he do it?" suggests that Beethoven's condition was an obstacle he had to overcome in order to achieve, and did so only with heroic effort.

And yet, scholars agree: deafness likely did not interfere much with Beethoven's ability to write music.

As it was, Beethoven experienced no loss of hearing until his 30s. By this time he was more than well acquainted with the sound of an orchestra, of a string quartet, of two woodwinds conversing. Goodness knows his being was saturated with the sound of the piano, which he played for nearly 30 years. Beethoven may not have needed to hear notes to write music any more than Milton needed to hear notes to write poetry.

But saying that Beethoven's disability did not interfere with his ability to write music is not to draw the absurd conclusion that Beethoven's music was not affected by deafness. The effect was pronounced, if indirect.

Beethoven suffered from a gradual auditory nerve degeneration

(the kind commonly treated today on an outpatient basis) that allowed him to still have "good days" when he could hear with renewed clarity, well into his 40s. His quaint ear trumpet also helped a little.

But the aristocratic Viennese circles in which Beethoven had long traveled as a spitfire virtuoso and wit showed themselves to possess a malicious ridiculing streak when they learned the great composer could not hear, snickering whisperings taking place in his very presence. Beethoven, as prideful a man as we are likely to meet, withdrew into semi-isolation.

Isolation is inevitably transfiguring; it did indeed affect Beethoven's music. His works grew less "social" in the indefatigable da-da-da-dah way that most of his symphonies and piano concertos embrace the public. They became introverted and idiosyncratic (some would say spiritual), as his "Missa Solemnis" and late string quartets demonstrate.

I would not want the critic's ridiculous chore of saying which of Beethoven's works are greater -- those written when he could still hear cuckoos calling from the top branches of oak trees in the Vienna woods, or those written once stone-silence had overtaken him and he took to scrawling frightful declamations on his scores, such as "Must it be? It must be!"

But this much is evident: The music Beethoven wrote late in life was great not in spite of but partly because of his affliction. Perhaps we have Beethoven's deafness to thank for some of our most deeply life-affirming sounds.

Dennis Bartel writes from Baltimore.

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