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Deafness


Beethoven's career as a virtuoso pianist was brought to an end when he began to experience his first symptoms of deafness. In a letter written to his friend Karl Ameda on 1 July 1801, he admitted he was experiencing signs of deafness.

How often I wish you were here, for your Beethoven is having
a miserable life, at odds with nature and its Creator, abusing
the latter for leaving his creatures vulnerable to the slightest
accident ... My greatest faculty, my hearing, is greatly
deteriorated.

Apparently Beethoven had been aware of the problem for about three years, avoiding company lest his weakness be discovered, and retreating into himself. Friends ascribed his reserve to preoccupation and absentmindedness. In a letter to Wegeler, he w rote:

How can I, a musician, say to people "I am deaf!" I shall, if
I can, defy this fate, even though there will be times when I
shall be the unhappiest of God's creatures ... I live only in
music ... frequently working on three or four pieces simultaneously.

Many men would have been driven to suicide; Beethoven may indeed have contemplated it. Yet his stubborn nature strengthened him and he came to terms with his deafness in a dynamic, constructive way. In a letter to Wegeler, written five months after the despairing one quoted above, it becomes clear that Beethoven, as always, stubborn, unyielding and struggling against destiny, saw his deafness as a challenge to be fought and overcome:

Free me of only half this affliction and I shall be a complete,
mature man. You must think of me as being as happy as it is
possible to be on this earth - not unhappy. No! I cannot endure
it. I will seize Fate by the throat. It will not wholly conquer
me! Oh, how beautiful it is to live - and live a thousand times over!

With the end of his career as a virtuoso pianist inevitable, he plunged into composing. It offered a much more precarious living than that of a performer, especially when his compositions had already shown themselves to be in advance of popular taste . In 1802 his doctor sent him to Heiligenstadt, a village outside Vienna, in the hope that its rural peace would rest in his hearing. The new surroundings reawakened in Beethoven a love of nature and the countryside, and hope and optimism returned. Chief amongst the sunny works of this period was the charming, exuberant Symphony no. 2. However, when it became obvious that there was no improvement in his hearing, despair returned. By the autumn the young man felt so low both physically and mentally that he feared he would not surive the winter. He therefore wrote his will and left instructions that it was to be opened only after his death. This 'Heiligenstadt Testament' is a long moving document that reveals more about his state of mind than does the music he was writing at the time. Only his last works can reflect in sound what he then put down in words.

O ye men who accuse me of being malevolent, stubborn and
misanthropical, how ye wrong me! Ye know not the secret
cause. Ever since childhood my heart and mind were disposed
toward feelings of gentleness and goodwill, and I was eager
to accomplish great deeds; but consider this: for six years
I have been hopelessly ill, aggravated and cheated by quacks in
the hope of improvement but finally compelled to face a lasting
malady ... I was forced to isolate myself. I was misunderstood
and rudely repulsed because I was as yet unable to say to people,
"Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf" ... With joy I hasten to meet
death. Despite my hard fate ... I shall wish that it had come later;
but I am content, for he shall free me of constant suffering. Come
then, Death, and I shall face thee with courage. Heiglnstadt (sic)
6 October, 1802.

The last page of the 'Heiligenstadt Testament'

Just how bad was Beethoven's plight? At first the malady was intermittent or so faint that it worried him only occasionally. but by 1801 he reported that a whistle and a buzz was constant. Low speech tones became an unintelligible hum, shouting became an intolerable din. Apparently the illness completely swamped delicate sounds and distorted strong ones. He may have had short periods of remission, but for the last ten years of his life he was totally deaf.
 
 
 
  Copyright (C) 2005 William Lane