Beethoven noted the first signs of deafness as early as 1801, when he was only 28, with numerous piano and chamber works behind him but only one symphony yet created.
“Let me tell you,” wrote the young composer to Karl Friedrich Amenda, “that my most prized possession, my hearing, has greatly deteriorated.”
He commented parenthetically, “When I am playing and composing my affliction still hampers me least; it affects me most when I am in company,” then pronounced, “Why, at the moment I feel equal to anything. I have been composing all types of music, except operas and sacred works.”
Beethoven closed this letter with a plea for secrecy about his condition. Some remained unaware of the problem, believing that when the master failed to socialize, for instance, or to reply when addressed, he was merely distracted—and that, too, may have been the case, particularly in company he did not relish.
If Beethoven’s composing was not severely affected by his hearing failure, his public life as a pianist and conductor certainly was, and this was devastating. “Oh, if only I could be rid of it (his affliction) I would embrace the whole world,” Beethoven wrote to his close friend Franz Gerhard Wegeler in 1801. “I will seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not bend and crush me completely.”
Beethoven continued his public concerts for 13 years, for he was not, as many believe, stone-deaf right away. He even courageously undertook the direction of his opera Fidelio at the Josephstadt Theater in 1822 when he could hear nothing, but this attempt proved a disaster when musicians and director got hopelessly out of synch, and the humiliated composer, once informed of the situation, fled in the midst of the performance. “In the long years of my association with the mighty composer,” wrote Beethoven’s intimate friend and biographer Anton Felix Schindler, “there was never any experience to equal that day. He never wholly recovered from the effect of this blow.”
Nevertheless, the years in which Beethoven’s hearing gradually worsened were ones of enormous creativity. It has even been proposed that his illness enhanced his work, forcing him to retreat from the public eye, allowing more time for composing, and enriching his soul and in turn his work through suffering, a popular Romantic notion. This, of course, is highly speculative. With a genius of the stature of Beethoven, it does, not seem likely that outward circumstances would have hindered his artistic development. “The nine symphonies would have been composed had Beethoven been surrounded by a wife and six rosy children, had he been as worldly as Goethe or as healthy as Verdi,” believes another biographer, George Marek.
It is obviously impossible to say how Beethoven composed his masterpieces, whether in prime health or deaf. But Schindler provides glimpses, at least, of his routine and methods. “Beethoven rose every morning the year round at dawn and went directly to his desk. There he would work until two or three o’clock, his habitual dinner hour.
In the course of the morning he would usually go out of doors once or twice, but would continue to work as he walked. These walks would seldom last more than an hour, and may be compared to a bee’s excursions to gather honey. In other words Beethoven, like many other composers, wrote at his desk the music he heard in his own head. “While working on a score, he played no instrument, and because it annoyed him to see anyone go through a work that was still incomplete, even those living in the same house heard nothing of a new symphonic work until it was rehearsed.”
An exception to this rule was the composition of music for the piano. Then “the master would often go to the instrument and try certain passages, especially those that might present difficulties in performance. At such times he was totally oblivious of anyone present.”
It is perhaps for this reason that Beethoven asked the piano manufacturer Streicher in 1817 to adjust a piano “as loud as possible” for his “weakened hearing.” It is possible that Beethoven was able, in a sense, to “hear” sound through vibrations. He may have touched the strings of the piano with a wooden stick (now in Beethovenhaus in Bonn, West Germany) clenched between his teeth. Schindler reports that another piano manufacturer, Conrad Graf, made a sounding board that when placed on the piano helped conduct the sound.
Beethoven had a habit of improvising at twilight, either at the piano or on the violin. “We need not say what this playing sounded like,” writes Schindler, “for his external senses were incapable of guiding him; for the other people in the house his playing, especially of the string instruments which he was unable to tune, was agony to the ears. His extemporizing on the piano was seldom intelligible, for it was usually extremely agitated, the left hand being spread wide and laid upon the keyboard so heavily that the noise would drown the much softer playing of the right hand.”
This is a sad and rather eerie spectacle to contemplate: the extreme isolation of the composer, and the uncanny discrepancy between the jarring sounds he produced and the magnificent sounds he alone must have heard.