Beethoven’s Deafness and the Myth of the Isolated Artist

By: Linda Shaver-Gleason (Lompoc, CA) //

In a scene from the 1995 movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, music teacher Glenn Holland tells his high school students about Beethoven’s deafness while playing the second movement of the composer’s seventh symphony (the same movement used fifteen years later during the climax of The King’s Speech). Holland has just learned that his toddler son is deaf. While Holland describes the irony of Beethoven’s situation—one of the greatest composers not being able to hear—it’s clear to the viewer that he’s connecting it to his personal irony, as his son will never be able to hear the music that has been his life’s purpose.

A scene from Mr. Holland’s Opus, in which Mr. Holland discusses Beethoven’s deafness with his students. 

Holland sits on his desk while the symphony emerges from the record player beside him. As he talks about the composer’s deafness, he is visibly distracted, gazing over the heads of the students seated at their desks. One student raises his hand, but Holland doesn’t notice until the student hesitantly calls his name to get his attention. The confused student asks, “If he couldn’t hear, how would he even know what the notes were? Like, if he never heard a C, how’d he know that’s what he wanted played?” Holland takes a moment to redirect his thoughts from his son to the composer, and answers, “Well…Beethoven wasn’t born deaf.”

Beethoven’s deafness has captivated audiences since knowledge about his condition became public. The composer himself was aware of the irony. In an 1802 letter to his brothers, referred to by historians as the Heiligenstadt Testament, the composer lamented, “Ah, how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection, a perfection such as few surely in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed!” Beethoven’s disability forms a large part of our concept of him as the quintessential Romantic Hero, as it is a tragic flaw he must overcome to produce his great Art.

The above clip mentions two stories about Beethoven’s deafness that have circulated for centuries. In one, Beethoven waves his arms at the podium, oblivious to the fact that the orchestra cannot keep up. Int the other, he saws off the legs of his piano so he can feel the vibrations through the floor.

Neither of these stories is true.

On my own blog, Not Another Music History Cliché, I debunk music history myths like these stories surrounding Beethoven’s deafness. I also examine why these myths circulate, how they affect our understanding of the past, and what they say about our present culture as we continue to accept them. Many of these stories reinforce our perception of composers as geniuses with rare gifts that distinguish them from the rest of humanity. Beethoven’s deafness is often presented as cutting him off from musical society, encouraging us to treat his music as the pure product of an exceptional mind.

In their paper “The Deaf Composer: Teaching Beethoven,” presented at the national meeting of the American Musicological Society in November 2016, Robin Wallace of Baylor University and Jeannette Jones of Boston University explain that Beethoven was not an oblivious conductor, since witnesses describe him following performances with his eyes. Wallace speculates that the related myth of Beethoven not knowing that the orchestra had stopped playing at the end of his ninth symphony is a twisted version of what likely happened—the audience stood to applaud after the scherzo, the second of four movements, and, since he was facing the musicians, Beethoven would have had no visual cues to alert him to this unexpected reaction, so someone had to notify him.

Wallace also dispelled the myth of the legless pianos: A letter cited these broken pianos as examples of his home being in disarray due to poor housekeeping. Witnesses describe him as composing while sitting normally at a piano with its legs intact. A few years before he died, Beethoven equipped his piano with an assistive device to amplify the sound and direct it back to the player rather than the audience. Yet, in the popular imagination, the idea of Beethoven ineffectually pounding on the floor overrides that of him successfully seeking assistance and accommodation. We prefer to think of him as eternally frustrated.

As Wallace and Jones point out, these myths conform to how hearing people expect a deaf musician to behave. They also reinforce Romantic ideas of the artist as separate from society. Beethoven’s condition seems to isolate him, immersing him in the perfect sound within his own mind, unfettered by the real sounds of the mundane world. But although Beethoven eventually lost his ability to hear, he was not completely cut off from the world of sound, as he still had visual references and could feel vibrations.

Furthermore, people who are confounded by Beethoven’s ability to compose without hearing seem to underestimate skills that many musicians develop. One is the ability to audiate, or hear sounds in the mind without singing or playing them. This is not simply memory, like recalling a melody that you heard earlier, but an act of imagination.

When I was a music major, I took courses in sight singing designed to develop the skill of audiation. Though I’ve never had perfect pitch, the relationship between pitches grew to feel like solid objects, like I had an instrument in my head where a minor sixth would always be a minor sixth, not notes that swam around until I confirmed them on a piano. Asking how Beethoven could compose music without being able to hear the pitches he played would be like asking how a playwright could write plays without having actors constantly present to move around. Such things certainly help—again, Beethoven amplified his piano—but they aren’t completely necessary.

Beethoven was also an experienced improviser, as this scene from a BBC documentary recreates (yet even here, the anxiety of deafness intrudes on his triumph as he grimaces to fading applause):

At a party in Vienna, Beethoven faces off against Daniel Steibelt as they both improvise on a theme from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Beethoven is the clear winner.

Improvisation involves some audiation, as he knew what the music would sound like before he played it, but there are also physical aspects to improvisation. Certain patterns had become part of his muscle memory, so his hands knew how to play their way through certain situations in ways that felt automatic. It didn’t confine him to patterns he had already learned; it gave him a fluency in the production of music that would not have disappeared as he went deaf. The bodily aspect of improvisation demonstrates how music draws on more than the sense of hearing.

Nevertheless, people continue to marvel at Beethoven the Deaf Composer, seeking explanations that allow us to keep regarding Beethoven as superhuman. A recent TED-Ed video provides one: Beethoven used MATH!

A cartoon representation of Beethoven conducts an unseen orchestra, then overlapping sine waves represent pitches of a chord to illustrate the proportional relationship between notes in consonant harmonies.

This video seems to give a rational, scientific explanation for Beethoven’s accomplishments to replace the supernatural and/or religious explanations that accumulated over the centuries. But really, it just replaces one superhuman feat with another—rather than transcribing the purest music from his soul, the video suggests that Beethoven computed the purest music in his head.

The video gives the impression that Beethoven intuited some complex interactions between sine waves and calculated them for maximum effect. At about 3:08, the video states, “It is by contrasting this dissonance with the consonance of the D major triad in the preceding measures that Beethoven adds the unquantifiable elements of emotion and creativity to the certainty of mathematics.”

While this video purports to answer the question of how Beethoven composed, all it really does is demonstrate how consonance and dissonance can be represented with sine waves. Though the illustration is helpful, particularly for non-musicians who are new to these concepts, it glosses over a lot of music theory. For centuries, music theorists have been filling in that gap between “the certainty of mathematics” and “the unquantifiable elements of emotion and creativity” that the TED-Ed video bypassed.

So, did Beethoven harness the power of math? Well, kind of. There are a lot of recurring patterns in music, and Beethoven was well-versed in them, as he understood what music theorists refer to as “functional harmony.” Creating a series of chords that “sounds good” is more than just switching between consonant and dissonant triads, however. Each chord has a specific role to play within a tonal context. The following video demonstrates these roles in the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 545. The harmonies are marked with Roman numerals, as is traditional in music analysis, and Zivane Minow also provides an emotional expression for each chord.

As music plays, the video shows an image identifying the harmony through its Roman numeral designation and a cartoonish drawing of an emotional expression. The drawings associated with each chord remain consistent throughout the video.

Though Minow’s video also simplifies matters (focusing solely on harmony and not any aspects of melody, rhythm, or timbre), it does convey a sense of how chords function in the context of a key. Certain patterns keep appearing, particularly at ends of phrases, as the V chord usually resolves to I. These are the types of patterns that Beethoven internalized through years of study and practice, forming a framework from which he could improvise and compose.

None of this robs Beethoven of his accomplishments. He was not constrained by the formulae of functional harmony, but found ways to use them to great effect. He was not simply rehashing the sounds he had heard before going deaf—he innovated, he invented, and he created. But we can recognize his achievements without buying into the myth that True Art comes from disengagement with the world.

In the AMS paper I mentioned earlier, Jones poses an interesting question: “How might we approach [Beethoven’s] music not in spite of his deafness, but rather as a product of someone who learned how to hear deafly?” Previous posts on The Avid Listener have considered ways of listening to music that are not confined to sound, from music in Deaf communities to the specific musical experiences of Helen Keller. Rather than setting the boundaries of music according to “normal” hearing, then marveling at Beethoven’s accomplishments as an apparent outsider, we can instead expand our concept of the musical experience to encompass more than hearing with ears.

Many thanks to Robin Wallace and Jeannette Jones for sharing their paper and providing feedback on this post, and thank you to Imani Mosley for alerting me to the TED video!

Discussion questions:

  1. How could the concept of “hearing deafly” affect a non-deaf person’s perception of a piece of music?
  2. How does disability factor into our perception of other composers? For example, Robert Schumann losing the ability to play piano, Bedřich Smetana losing his hearing, etc.
  3. Why do the false stories associated with Beethoven’s deafness persist? What do they provide for people that the historical accounts do not?

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