Did Beethoven’s Deafness Change His Music
Yes. In his early works, when Beethoven could hear the full range of frequencies, he made use of higher notes in his compositions. As his hearing failed, he began to use the lower notes that he could hear more clearly. Works including the Moonlight Sonata, his only opera Fidelio and six symphonies were written during this period. The high notes returned to his compositions towards the end of his life which suggests he was hearing the works take shape in his imagination.
Here’s Beethoven’s Große Fuge, Op. 133, written by the deaf Beethoven in 1826, formed entirely of those sounds of his imagination.
Beethoven And His Loss Of Hearing
Beethoven Deaf by Artigas
Around 1796, by the age of 26, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. He suffered from a severe form of tinnitus, a ringing in his ears that made it hard for him to hear music he also avoided conversation. The cause of Beethovens deafness is unknown, but it has variously been attributed to typhus, auto-immune disorders , and even his habit of immersing his head in cold water to stay awake. The explanation from Beethovens autopsy was that he had a distended inner ear, which developed lesions over time.
A large collection of Beethovens hearing aids, such as a special ear horn, can be viewed at the Beethoven House Museum in Bonn, Germany. Despite his obvious distress, Czerny remarked that Beethoven could still hear speech and music normally until 1812. By 1814 however, Beethoven was almost totally deaf, and when a group of visitors saw him play a loud arpeggio of thundering bass notes at his piano remarking, Ist es nicht schön? , they felt deep sympathy considering his courage and sense of humor .
Presentation Of The Hearing Loss In The Primary Literature
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in December in 1770 in Bonn, Germany and died on March 26th in 1827 at the age of 56 in Vienna, Austria. The first note of a hearing impairment was mentioned by the composer himself in two letters to his friend F. G. Wegeler written on June 29th and November 16th in 1801:
That malicious demon, however, bad health, has been a stumbling-block in my path my hearing during the last three years has become gradually worse .
My ears are buzzing and ringing perpetually, day and night. I can with truth say that my life is very wretched for nearly 2 years past I have avoided all society, because I find it impossible to say to people, I am deaf! In any other profession this might be more tolerable, but in mine such a condition is truly frightful .
I hear none of the high notes of instruments or singers. I often can scarcely hear a person if speaking low I can distinguish the tones, but not the words, and yet I feel it intolerable if anyone shouts to me
The ringing and buzzing in my ears have certainly rather decreased, particularly in the left ear, in which the malady first commenced, but my hearing is not at all improved in fact I fear that it is become rather worse
Also in 1802, Beethoven mentioned his hearing impairment in the Heiligenstädter Testament, a letter to his brothers Kaspar Karl und Johann from 1802:
Completely isolated, I only enter society when compelled to do so. I must live like an exile.
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What Caused Beethoven’s Hearing Loss
If you’re a fan of classical music, you probably know Ludwig van Beethoven suffered from deafness as a young adult. Despite his handicap, he continued to compose music that changed the course of musical history.
In the early 1800s, at the age of 28, Beethoven began to experience a particularly disruptive form of tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. So distracting were the sounds in his ears that he had problems hearing his own music. Although he continued to compose music for years after losing his ability to hear, he stopped performing in public in 1811 due to difficulty hearing his own performances and bouts of depression.
It’s not clear what caused Beethoven’s hearing loss. Although musicians have a higher rate of hearing loss due to long-term noise exposure, history suggests Beethoven’s hearing problems may have stemmed from lead poisoning. Other historians believe an autoimmune disease, syphilis, or typhus could have been the underlying cause. More recent research suggests a bone disease called Paget’s disease may have damaged the nerve that carry sound information to the brain. Nevertheless, by the age of 44, Beethoven was completely deaf.
Could Beethoven’s fate have been different had he been fitted with a hearing aid? At one point, Beethoven tried to ease his hearing problems by wearing a rather crude device of the time called a “hearing trumpet.” Unfortunately, it failed to improve his condition.
Beethovens Hearing Loss Was It Genetic
Originally posted at HHTM On April 21, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
Since the inception of the Hearing International blog, we have visited the topic of Beethovens hearing loss a number of times. First it was to outline the artist and his career, then to discuss his hearing impairment and theories on the specifics of the disorder that could have caused his hearing loss, studies that he may have composed his music differently as his hearing loss became worse, and, more recently, evidence that he even composed his music according to his irregular heartbeat.
Until recently the leading candidate for the cause of his hearing impairment according to records and the preponderance of evidence was lead poisoning caused by the lead used in wine at the time. Recently, new discoveries have been made that may refute the traditional thoughts of the cause of Beethovens hearing impairment and that of other modern day Beethovens with significant hearing loss, such as Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Ozzy Osbourne, and others.
It has been known for some time that some individuals are more susceptible than others to the perils of noise-induced hearing loss. Anecdotally, one musician, construction worker, or other noise exposed individual will be affected, while another person working right beside them will not. Could this be a reason why some composers or rockers suffer substantial hearing loss and others do not?
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Beethovens Disability: Undiagnosed And Hearing
Part of what made Beethovens disability so difficult to endure was that nobody was sure what caused it. Beethovens most persistent symptom was tinnitus, a ringing in his ears that made it hard for him to hear music and conversation. He first mentioned it in a letter to a friend in 1801, when he was 30.
In fact, doctors today still debate the cause of Beethovens hearing loss. This ambiguity apparently caused Beethoven himself some distress. In one of the most important documents attributed to the composer, the Heligenstadt Testament, Beethoven described his increasing despair over his loss of hearing, even contemplation of suicide. But in the course of his meditations, he found a renewed desire to fulfill what he saw as his artistic providence in spite of these bodily obstacles.
Poignant Stories From The Deaf Composer
A number of poignant stories about Beethovens hearing loss have trickled down over the years, although they are largely anecdotal and unverifiable. One story tells of Beethovens tendency to perform bizarre pieces composed of low-range notes, as he lost the ability to hear higher pitches first in a more well-documented episode, Beethoven was brought to tears upon realizing that at the end of the debut of his breathtaking Ninth Symphony, he had been unaware of the audiences roaring applause until a friend hinted that the deaf composer should turn his head. Whatever the status of these stories, it remains clear that Beethoven was not only one of the worlds greatest composers he was also one of the bravest and most persevering hearing-impaired people of all time.
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How Did Beethoven Cope With Going Deaf
The great composer was able to deal with his deafness thanks to a unique hearing machine he had fitted to his piano
Ludwig van Beethovens 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.
Its 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 Beethovens 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.
Lead May Have Caused Beethovens Hearing Loss But
Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the greatest composers of all time, made more famous because he wrote many of his symphonies after he had gone completely deaf at the age of 46. A new theory proposes that his deafness may have been caused by lead poisoning. Beethoven regularly drank from a lead gauntlet, and during the time he lived, lead was often added to the inexpensive wines he drank to improve the flavor. In 2018, a 64-year-old Italian woman was found to be suffering from deafness and other symptoms similar to Beethovens after eating food cooked on a lead pan for several years.
Today, we know lead should never be ingested because it can cause a host of health problems in addition to deafness. However, there are many other common chemicals you should avoid, or use infrequently, to prevent damage to your ears and ensure your healthy hearing remains intact.
For example, coming into contact with ototoxic chemicals can cause considerable damage to your inner ear. Once these substances enter the bloodstream, they can travel to your ears, be absorbed by the auditory nerves and ultimately cause hearing loss. In addition to hearing loss, ototoxic chemicals can cause tinnitus, which causes a ringing sound in the ears, as well as balance problems.
Approach To The Dilemma
An extensive review of the musical and medical history of Beethovens life was done as part of a masters degree in music history and literature at the University of Utah School of Music and is published in The Laryngoscope . Literature subsequent to the publishing of that paper has also been critically examined to complete this chapter. All diagnoses of Beethovens deafness previously considered are not reviewed in this chapter due to length constraints, but attention is given to those most compelling.
Family And Early Life
Beethoven was the grandson of Ludwig van Beethoven , a musician from the town of Mechelen in the Austrian Duchy of Brabant who had moved to Bonn at the age of 21. Ludwig was employed as a bass singer at the court of Clemens August, Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, eventually rising to become, in 1761, Kapellmeister and hence a pre-eminent musician in Bonn. The portrait he commissioned of himself towards the end of his life remained displayed in his grandson’s rooms as a talisman of his musical heritage. Ludwig had one son, Johann , who worked as a tenor in the same musical establishment and gave keyboard and violin lessons to supplement his income.
Johann married in 1767 she was the daughter of Heinrich Keverich , who had been the head chef at the court of the Archbishopric of Trier. Beethoven was born of this marriage in Bonn, at what is now the Beethoven House Museum, Bonnstrasse 20. There is no authentic record of the date of his birth but the registry of his baptism, in the Catholic Parish of St. Remigius on 17 December 1770, survives, and the custom in the region at the time was to carry out baptism within 24 hours of birth. There is a consensus that his birth date was 16 December, but no documentary proof of this.
Of the seven children born to Johann van Beethoven, only Ludwig, the second-born, and two younger brothers survived infancy. Kaspar Anton Karl was born on 8 April 1774, and Nikolaus Johann , the youngest, was born on 2 October 1776.
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What Caused Beethoven To Lose His Hearing
A musical prodigy, Beethoven released his first composition in 1778, when he was not quite 8 years old. For the next two decades, he released a number of symphonies and other musical compositions. When he was 27, though, he began to note difficulty hearing high-pitched sounds and complained of hearing a buzzing in his ears, also known as tinnitus.
Over the years, Beethovens hearing declined until he was completely deaf sometime around 1814, when he was 44 years old.
Unfortunately, there is no conclusive proof as to what caused Beethovens deafness. Sometimes he claimed it was caused when he was interrupted while working and fell over in a fit of rage. When he stood up, he said, he was deaf. Other times, he blamed gastrointestinal distress. His autopsy stated that his auditory nerves were shrunken and his inner ear had developed lesions. Its likely that his issues were caused by an autoimmune disorder, typhus, or even his habit of dunking his head in cold water to stay awake.
Beethoven tried a number of treatments to regain his hearing. Some of them involved using ear horns or other hearing instruments of the time. A number were less orthodox, though, such as bathing in the Danube River or strapping wet bark to his upper arms. Suffice it to say, they were unsuccessful.
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A Rebel Finds His Own Voice
Beethoven as leader of a performance of the Razumovsky Quartet from an unidentified newspaper, based on a painting by August Borckmann, 1880-1890, via King Library Digital Collections
In 1792, Beethoven found his way to Vienna in order to study under Haydn. Not too long after meeting Haydn, the stubborn composer would confront his teacher and express a desire to break free from the conventional musical formulas he was supposed to follow. Mozart had died only a year earlier, in 1791, and his death had only added to his rising influence, setting the benchmark for what contemporary music should be.
, 1792-1792, via the Royal Collection Trust
But Beethoven wanted to follow his own path and these unpredictable and unexplored musical territories would set him apart from others as a fresh and original voice. In his 1795 Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1, he achieved contrast not by changing keys as his contemporaries, but by experimenting with alterations in speed, repetition, and stark shifts between soft and loud. This would become a common theme in his music. In the same year, his piano trio in C-minor made its debut with a rousing finale full of urgency, chaos, and jarring repetitions. Ferdinand Ries, Beethovens student, said of the premiere:
Passions would certainly flare up between the two iconic composers on more than one occasion. Its certain that Beethoven made a clear declaration of who he was as an artist.
How Did Beethoven Compose When He Was Deaf
What makes Beethoven all the more remarkable is that he was able to continue composing even after his hearing started to go. Fortunately for him, his hearing loss was gradual, not sudden. This meant that he could still hear some music for years after he started to go deaf. When he became unable to hear higher-frequency sounds, he would use primarily lower notes. Moonlight Sonata is a good example of a piece of music from this period.
Beethoven is also known to have composed by feeling the vibrations from his piano. He knew he had the right note when he felt the correct vibration. Also, he had so much experience composing that he could remember a great deal about which notes from which instruments sounded best together.
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