The story of prodigy composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s hearing loss is almost as well-known as his music itself. For a time when little technology was available to help the hard-of-hearing, the slow descent into deafness that Beethoven suffered seems like a particularly cruel form of torment for one of the greatest musical minds ever. However, on the anniversary of his birthday, it’s worth remembering that Beethoven actually devised an ingenious number of ways to cope with his hearing loss as a deaf composer.
Beethoven’s Disability: Undiagnosed and Hearing-Impaired
Part of what made Beethoven’s disability so difficult to endure was that nobody was sure what caused it. Beethoven’s 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 Beethoven’s 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.
A Hearing-Impaired Beethoven’s Ingenuity
Contemporaries reported that Beethoven employed a wide range of brilliant tricks and technologies to deal with being hearing-impaired. They ranged from learning to distinguish notes by feeling the top of a piano in the early stages of his ailment, to using a variety of ear horns, several of which were made especially for him by his friend Johann Nepomuk Malzel, the under-appreciated inventor of the metronome. Also unique to Beethoven were a series of “conversation books,” many of which still survive. In these volumes Beethoven’s friends would write what they wished to tell him and he would respond verbally or in writing, often including humorous wordplay or illustrations. These documents record his views on his own music and how it should be performed, as well as other intimate thoughts. They have proven invaluable to historians, although some sources record the existence of “up to 400” such volumes, of which only a small portion have survived. (Some speculate that early biographer Anton Schindler destroyed the 264 missing volumes in order to preserve a more reverable image of the composer.)
Poignant Stories from the Deaf Composer
A number of poignant stories about Beethoven’s hearing loss have trickled down over the years, although they are largely anecdotal and unverifiable. One story tells of Beethoven’s 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 audience’s 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 world’s greatest composers — he was also one of the bravest and most persevering hearing-impaired people of all time.