Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the greatest composers of all time. Yet by the time he was writing his last few masterpieces he was completely deaf.
Beethoven wasn’t born deaf. He gradually lost all his hearing from the age of 30 onwards.
He first had an inkling something was wrong when he began to hear buzzing noises in his ears. He was only 26 at the time.
Beethoven kept his hearing problems a secret. He believed the truth would ruin his blossoming career.
By the time he turned 30, Beethoven feared he was growing deaf.
He complained to a doctor that his hearing had grown weaker over the previous three years. He explained he could not hear the high notes unless he was standing very close to the musicians.
Beethoven wrote, “For two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings. It is impossible for me to say to people ‘I am deaf.’ If I belonged to any other profession it would be easier.”
Fellow composer Ferdinand Ries recalled a turning point in Beethoven’s deafness. During a walk in the country, the two musicians saw a shepherd playing a pipe. Beethoven could see by his friend’s expression the shepherd was playing beautiful music. All Beethoven could hear was the sound of silence. The composer was no longer the same after the incident. He had finally confronted and surrendered to his loss of hearing.
By the age of 44, Beethoven was almost completely deaf. He could no longer hear other people’s voices or the sounds of his beloved countryside.
No-one knows what exactly caused Beethoven’s deafness. A range of causes has been blamed. It could have been syphilis, lead poisoning, or typhus. It could even have been the composer’s habit of burying his head in a bucket of ice water to stay awake.
Beethoven often blamed his deafness on a fall. He also suggested gastrointestinal problems were the cause.
Whatever the reason, Beethoven refused to let his deafness conquer his passion. He continued to write music.
Although he could no longer hear the music, he could still feel and imagine it.
Beethoven’s housekeepers recall watching him sit at the piano with a pencil in his mouth. With the other end, he would touch the piano’s soundboard to feel the note’s vibration.
Beethoven wrote his famed Ninth Symphony without ever hearing a note of it. Upon its premiere, Beethoven insisted upon conducting. The orchestra hired another conductor to stand next to him. The orchestra followed his lead instead of the man who had composed the piece.
When the music was over, the audience broke out into applause. Beethoven didn’t hear any of it.