February 18, 2020
Modern musicians are not the only ones to suffer from hearing damage. Probably one of the most well-known hard-of-hearing musicians was Ludwig Van Beethoven. While his hearing loss was not due to his music, he still began losing his hearing in his 20s and by the time he directed his Ninth Symphony in 1824, he was entirely deaf.
Beethoven is famous now for being deaf, but many people around him while he was alive were unaware of his difficulty. The only reason we are aware of it now is because of letters he sent to his friends that included passages such as the one below, addressed to Pastor Ameda.
You must know that one of my most precious faculties, that of hearing, is become very defective; even while you were still with me I felt indications of this, though I said nothing; but it is now much worse. Whether I shall ever be cured remains yet to be seen; it is supposed to proceed from the state of my digestive organs, but I am almost entirely recovered in that respect. I hope indeed that my hearing may improve, but I scarcely think so, for attacks of this kind are the most incurable of all. (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/13065/13065-h/13065-h.htm, letter 13)
According to these letters, he began to notice tinnitus in his early 20s as a “buzzing” in his ears. By 1798 he knew he had hearing loss, and by 1801 his hearing was nearly gone. When he was unable to perform his “Emperor” concerto (Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat minor, Op. 73) in 1811, he vowed never to perform in public again. It was around this time he considered suicide, but chose not to “for the sake of his art.” It wasn’t until he directed his Ninth Symphony in 1816 that he appeared in a public performance again, although the stage assistant did have to turn him around in order to see the thunderous applause.
It is possible to track the progression of Beethoven’s hearing loss through his music as well. In his early works, Beethoven used many higher frequencies in his compositions. As his hearing declined over the years he used fewer high frequencies and focused on the mid and low tones that he could hear more easily. While he did succumb to deafness entirely, he did not stop composing music. After 30 years of composing, he knew the notes well enough to piece together compositions by memory and imagination alone, and he begins to add higher notes in his works towards the end of his life. An example of one of these works completed by imagination alone is his Große Fuge, Op. 133, written in 1826, the year prior to his death.
There is no concrete diagnosis for Beethoven’s hearing loss, although his autopsy report stated he had a “distended inner ear.” Other causes that have been suggested are typhus, syphilis, lead poisoning, and his habit of dunking his head in cold water to stay awake. Beethoven himself thought it may have to do with his gastrointestinal upsets (of which he suffered for many years) and attempted to cure himself by visiting several doctors, following bizarre remedies, and eventually just using ear trumpets.
While his hearing loss caused no small amount of tragedy in his life, Beethoven remains one of the most celebrated composers and musicians, renowned for his emotional works, prodigal skills, and endless creativity. His music is easily recognized worldwide, is nearly as popular today as it was in his own time, and he fought through his difficulties with a strength anyone today would admire.