Culture and Recreation
Was Beethoven really deaf for much of his life?
Yes, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) suffered a gradual hearing loss during his twenties, and eventually lost his hearing altogether (in his early thirties). The loss was devastating to the German composer. In a letter to his brother he wrote, “But how humbled I feel when someone near me hears the distant sound of a flute, and I hear nothing; when someone hears a shepherd singing, and I hear nothing!” At one point he even contemplated suicide but instead continued his work.
He had studied briefly with Mozart (in 1787) and Joseph Haydn (in 1792), and appeared for the first time in his own concert in 1800. While the loss of his hearing later prevented him from playing the piano properly, it did nothing to hold back his creativity. Between 1800 and 1824, Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, and many believe that he developed the form to perfection. His other works include five piano concertos and 32 piano sonatas, as well as string quartets, sonatas for piano and violin, opera, and vocal music, including oratorios. It was about the time that he completed his work on his third symphony, the Eroica (1804), that he went completely deaf. Though he was himself a classicist, music critics often refer to a turning point marked by the Eroica, which shows the complexity of the romantic age of music.
A true genius, Beethoven’s innovations include expanding the length of both the symphony and the piano concerto, increasing the number of movements in the string quartet (from four to seven), and adding instruments—including the trombone, contrabassoon, and the piccolo—to the orchestra, giving it a broader range. Through his adventurous piano compositions, Beethoven also heightened the status of the instrument, which was a relatively new invention (1710). Among his most well-known and most-often-performed works are his third (Eroica), fifth, sixth (Pastoral), and ninth (Choral) symphonies, as well as the fourth and fifth piano concertos.
It is remarkable—even unfathomable—that these works, so familiar to so many, were never heard by their composer. A poignant anecdote tells of Beethoven sitting on stage to give tempo cues to the conductor during the first public performance of his ninth symphony. When the performance had ended, Beethoven—his back to the audience—was unaware of the standing ovation his work had received until a member of the choir turned Beethoven’s chair around so he could see the tremendous response.