The story behind: Beethoven's deafness

24th January 2003 at 00:00
"O you who think I am hostile, peevish, or misanthropic, how greatly you wrong me!" Ludwig van Beethoven's desperate cry in his Heiligenstadt Testament is generally taken to be an admission that his unadmitted deafness had destroyed him.

"Though born with a fiery, lively temperament, I had to withdraw myself, to spend my life alone. How could I possibly admit weakness of the one sense which should be more perfect in me than others? I must live alone like an outcast...If I approach people a burning anxiety comes over me..."

Such terrible words, designed to be read after his death, have all the hallmarks of a moral suicide note. But, in fact, as Barry Cooper shows in his book Beethoven (Oxford University Press), the truth is altogether more interesting because it both was a suicide note and emphatically wasn't.

Beethoven wrote that testament when he was 32, after six years of progressively deteriorating hearing. But, as Cooper puts it, that document was "a ceremonial burial", marking a period of mourning for the loss of his hearing. When that mourning was over, Beethoven embarked on a new creative quest. The first big work he wrote in this new life was the "Eroica" symphony, and the second was his opera Fidelio (Deutsche Grammophon 419 436-2), whose most intense moment symbolises this rise from the grave.

Act Two opens with a solo from the revolutionary hero Florestan buried deep in his dungeon: "Oh God! How dark it is! How terrible this silence! Here in this void no living thing comes near. In the springtime of my life, all my joy has vanishedI" His first long-held note is a long and heart-rending cry from the deep but, gradually - both literally and metaphorically - light breaks through: Beethoven is healing himself through art.

Beethoven's deafness got steadily worse over the next 25 years, to the point where he couldn't even hear his own works, but he never again succumbed to despair. And far from shunning human company, he enjoyed it to the last, as his "conversation books" recording chats in cafes bear witness.

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