The celebrated composer Ludwig van Beethoven (one of the “Three Bs” in the classical music pantheon) is universally admired for his impressive creative output: boasting an almost uncountable number of symphonies, string quartets, piano/violin/cello/horn sonatas, concerti, choral works, overtures, and operas. The opening eight notes of his Symphony No. 5 are “common knowledge” to virtually any student or adult in the Western world. Yet what often captures our interest about this remarkable man is the fact that he endured the ultimate irony for a musician/composer: losing his hearing.
Beethoven was born on December 16, 1770 in Bonn, Germany. He died on March 26, 1827 at age 56, less than three years after the completion of his ninth symphony. His life was plagued by a host of medical conditions. Peter J. Davies, an Australian gastroenterologist and medical historian, enumerates Beethoven’s “many illnesses”: smallpox, asthma, gastrointestinal disorders, liver disease, respiratory catarrhs, rheumatic complaints, recurrent headaches, eye disorders. Davies cites his companion volume, The Character of a Genius: Beethoven in Perspective (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), which adds mental disorders to Beethoven’s roster of maladies: paranoia, bipolar tendencies, depression, hypochondriasis.
It is within this complicated psycho-medical context that Beethoven’s lifelong struggle with auditory disorders emerged. In Davies’s detailed medical chronology, he lists 1798 as the year in which the 27-year-old Beethoven first mentioned his persistent hearing loss; the initial symptom was his inability to hear high-pitched sounds. In 1801, he complained of tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and hyperacusis (painful sensitivity to sounds). In a letter to his doctor in 1801, he wrote: “my ears…whistle and roar incessantly, night and day…” By 1809, Beethoven was “significantly deaf”; and by 1814, “almost totally deaf”. Starting in 1818, he used “conversation books” to communicate with friends; the extant copies provide a wealth of information about Beethoven’s life and thought. From December 1826 to February 1827, just a month prior to his death, Beethoven underwent four operations.
Biographers have long speculated on the possible causes for Beethoven’s deafness: among them meningo-neuro-labyrinthitis, syphilis, mercury poisoning, typhus fever, meningitis, and acoustic trauma. Modern diagnoses include systemic lupus erythematosis, sarcoidosis, otosclerosis, Whipples’s Disease, amyloidosis, and elevated levels of lead in the hair. Beethoven’s physician, Dr. Malfatti, is credited with making this less-than-encouraging statement: “Rest is the only remedy…I do not know what caused your deafness, Herr Beethoven, but I suspect that medical science will not be of much use to you.” The composer received medicinal water treatments at Teplitz, Franzensbrunn, Carlsbad, and Baden bei Wien in Czechoslovakia and Austria; and even tried galvanism (electric treatments).
Beethoven’s descent into complete deafness inevitably affected his state of mind. In an 1801 letter to Karl Amenda, he wrote: “…your Beethoven lives most unhappily, in discord with Nature and with the Creator….I am leading a miserable life.” After 1801 came “periods of intense depression and introspection” and even thoughts of suicide. P. Harrison cites W.H. Trethowan’s speculation that “perhaps the net effect of the increasing deafness was to exaggerate his cyclothymic personality [bipolar II disorder]–shared by many composers–and enable him to experience the extremes of mood that often seem to precede the great works.” Harrison concurs with this theory:
“Compositions changed noticeably around this time both in quantity and quality. Paradoxically, between bouts of severe depression he wrote some of his finest material; many of the seeds of ideas were sown during the ‘lows’ to come to fruition at the time of the ‘highs’.”
Scott and Moffett’s 1978 study reinforces the importance of the year 1801 as a “demarcation” for Beethoven’s oeuvre: “Most of the great works for which [Beethoven] is remembered were written after 1801, and it has been said that had he died before this time he would long since have been forgotten…how may deafness have altered the music he produced?” The spring of 1802 initiated a creative five-year period, referred to as the “middle” or “heroic” period, which included the composition of the opera Fidelio and Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”, originally dedicated to Napoleon). Beethoven’s condition may be reflected in this symphony: “…there is a suspicion of [tinnitus] in the repeated and discordant ‘F’ that occurs stridently in the first movement of the Eroica symphony [#3], written around the time of his rapid deterioration in hearing .”
From 1808 to 1813, Beethoven was “at reasonable peace with himself. It may not be coincidence that at this time his creativity declined, with few works of note.” 1813 marked a 13-year period that coincided with the composer’s final stage of life, in which “creative energies were renewed.” The hallmark of this “late period” was “intense, highly personal expression” along with an “ethereal and spiritual quality.” Martin Cooper observes, “It is as though, with death approaching and having been deaf for 20 years–with all its psychological and musical consequences–that his abilities took him a step further into the unknown.” Compositions in the “late period” included the Symphony No. 9, Missa Solemnis, and string quartets 130, 131, 132, 133, and 135.
Davies succinctly captures the paradox of the composer’s affliction: “Beethoven’s transformation of his many sufferings into so much of the greatest music ever composed is a masterstroke of human achievement.”
1 Davies, Peter J. Beethoven in Person: His Deafness, Illnesses, and Death. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001. xi.
2 ibid. xiii.
3 Harrison, P. “The Effects of Deafness on Musical Composition.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, vol. 81 (October 1988), 598-601. 598.
4 Suchet, John. The Last Master: Passion and Pain; Volume Two of a Fictional Biography of Ludwig van Beethoven. Boston: Little, Brown, 1999. 359
5 Harrison, op. cit. 599.
7 Huxtable, Ryan J. “Beethoven: A Life of Sound and Silence.” Molecular Interventions, vol. 1, no. 1 (April 2001): 8-12. 10.
8 Harrison, op. cit. 599.
10 Harrison, op.cit. 598.
12 Harrison, op.cit. 599.
15 Davies, op. cit. xi.