Composer Notes: Beethoven’s Hearing Loss

Beethoven's 18th Century Struggle with the Stigma of Hearing Loss

Composer Notes: Beethoven’s Hearing Loss
To Viennese society bred on the lilting style of Mozart, in the late 1700s, Ludwig van Beethoven seemed to barge into salons and pound on the piano, breaking strings in the process. He aimed for a “hitherto unexploited kind of orchestral sonority on the keyboard,” explains Harold C. Schonberg in The Lives of the Great Composers. Yet by the turn of the century, when Beethoven turned 30, his hearing had faded in the high frequencies, imperiling his piano career.

At the theater, Beethoven had to lean forward towards the orchestra in order to hear what was being said on the stage. (Modern-day hearing aids tuned into a hearing loop unfortunately were not an option.) He tried to cure his high-frequency loss with applications of herbs and oil of almonds, as well as with hot and cold baths, but to no avail.

Those attempted cures now seem archaic, yet the feelings Beethoven experienced from his hearing loss are powerful and contemporary. In a letter from Heilingenstadt, a country place where he hoped to recuperate, the composer wrote to his brothers, “How humiliating it was when some one standing close to me heard a distant flute, and I heard nothing.” Two centuries have passed since Beethoven strained to hear that faraway flute, but I sometimes have the same feelings of embarrassment, even shame, about my inability to hear. When I miss a conversational nugget that others take for granted, I do a rapid calculation as to whether I should fake my way through the discussion or admit that I did not hear.

Beethoven claimed that his growing fame as a composer prevented him from being candid about his increasing deafness. “It was not possible for me to say to men: Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf. Alas! how could I declare the weakness of a sense which in me ought to be more acute than in others?” Yet I wonder whether personal mortification—rather than simply professional concerns—motivated the composer to hide his hearing loss.

Apparently, Beethoven advised a pupil never to compose in a room in which there was a piano, lest he succumb to the temptation to use the instrument. Beethoven, with his absolute pitch, had no need of a piano to create the sounds of his music in his mind. So, the disgrace associated with deafness must have at least in part impelled Beethoven to write to his friend, Carl Amenda, “Please keep as a great secret what I have told you about my hearing.”

The stigma that 18th-century Viennese society (and perhaps also our 21st American society) attached to hearing loss no doubt stemmed from the difficulties that the hearing-impaired present in a conversation. Phrases must be repeated, voices raised, distracting background noises quelled. Today, programmed hearing aids and cochlear implants ameliorate but do not solve the problem. (Although the Hearing Restoration Project seeks to find a cure for hearing loss within a decade.) It is only recently that I have begun to admit to people that I have a high-frequency hearing loss. Faced between appearing brooding and disconnected (traits often ascribed to Beethoven) or simply hard of hearing, I now chose the latter.

“Oh! Life is beautiful, would I could have a thousand lives!” wrote Beethoven to a friend in Bonn. I echo that sentiment, with the addendum that I could live at least one of those lives with perfect hearing. Barring that possibility, I find I can only admit to my loss: for me, the distant flute was inaudible.

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Copyright © 2017 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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