“O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you & I would have ended my life — it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.”
One of the acknowledged masterpieces of romantic music is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which finishes with the great Ode to Joy, Schiller’s verses about international harmony set to a memorable and moving tune. Even when poorly played, as when I saw it recently at Geneva’s Victoria Hall, it’s an amazing work of great power, requiring an enlarged orchestra and several choirs. Yet when it was premiered on 7 May 1824 to a tumultuous reception, it is said that Beethoven, his back to the audience, had to be turned around to see the applause which he had been unable to hear, being totally deaf by this point in his life.
Born in Bonn, he was the son and grandson of musicians, and was soon recognized as having innate talent himself. His upbringing was chaotic, his mother died, and his father’s music teaching was brutal. Because his father was also a feckless drunk, Beethoven looked after his two younger brothers and supplemented the family income by playing in the court orchestra. By 13, he had published two sonatas and attracted support from the Elector of Bonn. Thanks to this assistance, in 1792 Beethoven went to Vienna to study with Haydn. He quickly established a reputation as a piano virtuoso, and from 1795 began publishing his own compositions, soon earning enough from them to cover his living expenses. After 1800 there followed the works of his middle period, known as his “Heroic” period, which comprised the great symphonies, piano sonatas, the violin concerto and the opera Fidelio.
But aged 26, at exactly the same time as his career began to took off, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. As he explained to a friend: “I must confess that I lead a miserable life. For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf. If I had any other profession, I might be able to cope with my infirmity; but in my profession it is a terrible handicap.” He was not just hard of hearing, he also suffered from tinnitus, a perpetual and distracting ringing in his ears. No wonder that his first thoughts were of suicide, as he explained in letters to his brother. In the Heiligenstadt testament, written on 6 October 1802, he talks about his loneliness:
“O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.”
But he changed his mind, and decided instead to dedicate his life to music: he had seven more symphonies to come at this point in his career. After 1811, he never played in public, and by 1814 he was totally deaf, unable to hear either music or speech.
A side effect of Beethoven’s deafness is that more is known of his everyday life than of those of his contemporaries. If you wanted to talk to Beethoven, you wrote down your questions or comments in a bound volume – a Conversation Book – of which 400 were known to have been filled in, although 264 were later destroyed. The surviving Conversation Books give a unique insight into his discussions with friends and colleagues.
Beethoven seems to have been a rather irascible character. He refused to play if people were not paying attention. He had no respect for rank. The Archduke Rupert was forced to announce that the usual rules of court etiquette did not apply to Beethoven. But nevertheless, Beethoven had a close circle of devoted friends who supported him. He fell in love with aristocratic ladies on several occasions, but unfortunately as a commoner he had no hope of marrying one of them.
In the years after 1816, Beethoven was sick and produced little. But he recovered, and another period of amazing creativity followed, partly influenced by renewed study of Baroque masters such as Bach and Handel. In this last phase of his career, he composed the late string quartets, Missa Solemnis, Diabelli Variations, and the Ninth Symphony – all while completely unable to hear a note.
From 1825, when he was completing the string quartets, Beethoven was again seriously ill. He died on 26 March 1827, following hepatitis. His funeral was attended by 20,000 people, among then Franz Schubert, who was one of the torchbearers and who was himself to die the following year. Ludwig van Beethoven’s life may have been frustrating and troubled, but his work puts him into the first rank of composers, alongside Bach and Mozart.