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Title How did Beethoven's deafness affect his music?

That is the question I asked to the members of the American Beethoven Society and the members of the Ludwig list, in october 2002.

Here are the answers that their authors accepted to shared with you all.

Thanks to you all.
Dominique Prévot

Beethoven's earing devices...
Acoustic cornets for Beethoven
made in 1813 by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel

Beethoven's creativity

Generally it is not said anymore --as it was in his time, by some people-- that the music was negatively affected by deafness. That he could NOT listen to the dissonant harmonies in some of his late pieces. That is risible, as if a musician like Beethoven, could have "forgotten" how dissonances would "sound". :-)

It is now accepted that his deafness advanced slowly and erratically. Too slowly and erratically to influence in the music itself, EXCEPT in the "arguments" of certain pieces of music. In the loss of human contact that
was also part of his lot. His personal fight against the fate of deafness, was an important part of his personal credo. He was a man intensely individual, --of course I mean this personally AND musically-- and deafness obviously contributed to that. His originality both as a man and as a musician, was enforced by deafness but not determined by it. I am sure of that.

Now the issue if what would have happened if he had not become deaf in his last twenties? that is a difficult and tricky question. Because he was already himself practically from the beginning, and he had tasted pain from childhood on. May be if he could have made a career as a director and virtuoso pianist, he could have had less time to compose... but he would have turned to composition anyway, later in life, I believe.

So, I would say that deafness contributed to what he was, but not determined it.

Check...Cristina Barbieri

The notion that Beethoven's originality is somehow closely related to his deafness is very much part of the Beethoven tradition, and it seems to have originated even as early as during his life time. But there is an indication that Beethoven himself thought differently.

In the Konversationshefte, vol.9, p.290/291 we can read the following remarks by nephew Karl: "Precisely because of that [your deafness] you are famous. Everyone is astonished, not just that you can compose so well, but particularly that you can do it in spite of this affliction. If you ask me, I believe that it even contributes to the originality of your compositions."

Beethoven's answer, as so often in the Konversationshefte, is not recorded, but Karl continues: "Nevertheless, I believe that even the greatest genius, when hearing someone else's compositions, subconsciously copies ideas. In your case that doesn't happen, because you have to create everything from within yourself."

Karl's "nevertheless" suggests that Beethoven did not agree with his previous remark, "that it even contributes to the originality of your compositions." Because we don't know Beethoven's exact answer, one can of course create different interpretations for this passage. But it seems important to keep in mind that Beethoven himself may have thought differently on this subject, and I think that his opinion should count for more than anyone else's.

If one accepts that Beethoven himself contradicts the idea of a link between his deafness and originality (and if one applies Occam's razor to that fragment from the Konversationshefte which I've quoted, than that is the most plausible interpretation) then that would be in perfect agreement with our modern understanding of Beethoven's originality; see for example Charles Rosen: "The Classical Style, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven", and his "Sonata Forms". In this view Beethoven's originality can be understood as Beethoven being part of the classical tradition, realizing the full potential of that language, rather than turning his back to it, and attempting to destroy it. Being in discussion with his predecessors, Mozart and Haydn, and after 1816 also with Bach, Handel and da Palestrina, was important in triggering his originality. This view does in no way diminish Beethoven's statue, but it does help to get closer to what is truly original about him.

And if Beethoven rejects nephew Karl's hypothesis (" "that it [your deafness] even contributes to the originality of your compositions"), then that implies that Beethoven himself was well aware of this situation.

Check...Willem Holsbergen

Willem gave us some interesting passages from the Conversation books, where Karl seemingly "argues" with his uncle about the influence of his deafness:

"Nevertheless, I believe that even the greatest genius, when hearing someone else's compositions, subconsciously copies ideas...."

As Willem pointed out, this could be interpreted numerous ways. I might suggest that Beethoven did not like what he perceived was Karl's emphasis on his deafness as the source of his genius. After all, he was a genius in music long before he lost his hearing. And the suggestion that he had to be afflicted in order to be original might not have set well with him. "You're so original because you can't hear!" And Beethoven would have probably said "Bah, phooey!" on that!

Maybe Karl's remark seemed to trivlialize Beethoven's talent, but "nevertheless," I think there's something to it, despite Beethoven being taken aback (maybe even feeling insulted) by it. As Nancy pointed out, losing his social interaction caused Beethoven to look within himself, to delve to greater depths, to see answers to profound spiritual questions, to find strength within himself and his faith... and all those things are reflected in his music. So while it might not have been that his musical output was directly related to his becoming deaf, the originality of it might have sprung from the person Beethoven had become as a result of his deafness. (As well as everything else that happened to him in his lifetime.)

Basically, I believe his deafness affected him socially far more than musically. However, because he was taken away from the society he enjoyed, that in itself might have affected his music. How, one can only guess. Perhaps he was more sensitive to the suffering of others; or grew more philosophical and introspective; or became closer to God, and so was able to create music that reflected that. I cannot remember now if I said that, or not, but I do think that is how his deafness affected him mostly. Probably not because it isolated him from< other musical ideas.

Check...Gail Altman

Beethoven did read quite a lot of other composers' work

Did he? The only composer I'm aware of is Handel and then not until he was on his deathbed. But even if he did occasionally read others' music, it was by his choice. When our ears are assailed by sounds, it is not always of our choosing. To look at written music would be a deliberate choice. Did he do so? Don't know.

But perhaps lacking his hearing in his later years, it caused him to turn more inward, finding and defining and relying on his own strength and spirituality that manifested itself in his music. The music he wrote in those years is quite different from anything composed to that point, both by Beethoven himself and by others. So it does not seem that any influences came to him from the outside, but that he drew exclusively from the magical springs that flowed within him.

Check...Gail Altman

And he also read Mozart scores and even copied some of them. And Haendel, and Palestrina, and Bach, and Gluck, and he is even said to have read Schubert's scores. I am sure that he read music that interested him, when he had the chance. Most probably in Rudolph musical library. And none of that made him the slightest bit less original, of course.

Check...Cristina Barbieri

Beethoven also frequently copied or arranged the works of others in preparation for writing a similar type work himself, and not just in the 1790s when he was learning his craft (though that is the time period where it is most common). For instance, there are surviving copies in Beethoven's hand of the Mozart Fugue for 2 pianos in C minor, several Bach fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier arranged for string quartet, a piece by Handel, etc. as well as works by a number of less well-known composer.

It seems to me that Beethoven may have had an intensely visual component to his thought process, which required seeing the notes on paper to attempt to absorb their structure and evolution. That would be in line with Schenker's theories regarding the visual representation of Beethoven's piano works, with significance given to which way stems point, etc. I know Schenker isn't well thought of in this group but I do think he was onto something here.

Check...Mark S Zimmer

Vienna was a major music center during Beethoven's life time. Vienna was buzzing with musical themes
from all corners of the world and Beethoven, and other composers, "plucked" them and used them. The theme of the 3rd movement of his opus 11 was a popular street song; the theme from "Ich bin der Schnieder Kakadu" was on the "top 10 hit list" in Vienna for quite some time. I even read an article that the theme of the 3rd movement of his violin concerto is sung by the European black bird!

So, I do not find Beethoven's use of French Revolutionary themes, or mutations of them, as unusual. They were there for the taking. What distinguishes between Beethoven's "taking" and that of others is what Beethoven did with them.

Check...Avishai Kallai

Do you think his deafness caused him to move from the outer world to the inner world, and THAT is why his later music is so profound?

I would think that this observation MUST have a lot of truth to it. For any musician to lose his or her hearing must be devastating. And yet . . . I would hate to call it "a blessing in disguise," but surely the greater feelings of loneliness must have forced, or at least hastened, Beethoven's introspection. How fortunate for US---the originality of his work intensified into mind-boggling achievements. His previous experience, seen only from a technical standpoint, enabled him to put his passions on paper so that WE could hear what otherwise only HE was hearing in his head and heart.

Check...Nancy Webster

Beethoven would seem to me he would not view the ideas of others as "contamination", but as a springboard to bounce his own ideas even higher.

"Contamination" was really my word, not Beethoven's. He would not view others' music that way. And I put it in quotes because one cannot really be contaminated with anything as beautiful as music! Maybe "influenced" would have been a better word. Or maybe that isn't really what I was getting at, either. Because, as you said, he could take a theme and soar higher with it, simply because he drew on his own inner resources. I think what I was getting at was this: his deafness gave him the choice of influence. Maybe he would have had that choice anyway, but it seemed to me that when one deliberately seeks out a theme in a piece of previously composed music--and must find it in a written score, rather than allowing chance to bring it to him "on the air"---that is somehow different than just hearing something at random and building on it. Don't know, but it's an interesting thread to toss around.

Do you think his deafness caused him to move from the outer world to the inner world, and THAT is why his later music is so profound? Or would he have gotten there anyway, just because he experienced such extremes of emotion in his life, plunging from the depths to soaring with the angels?

Check...Gail Altman

As you said, he was a man who valued human interaction highly. It would seem to me he would not view the ideas of others as "contamination", but as a springboard to bounce his own ideas even higher.

There is another reason to read the music of others. There is a fine line between originality and incomprehensibility (a line Beethoven crosses for many with the late string quartets, for example). The music of others could also have shown him a little better the ways in which we were capable of receiving his message.

Check...Annie Moss More



Use the bibliography database at our website. Then when you get to the bibliography database, just type in deafness. You'll see it gives you several studies on this issue.

Check...Beth Fleming


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