From Silence to Sound
The symptoms had become undeniable, and doctors were no help. By 1802, the young German pianist had to face the terrible truth. He—a virtuoso player and a promising composer—was becoming deaf. What would become of a musician who could not hear?
Others may have given up. Ludwig van Beethoven struggled bravely on. So sad that he sometimes wished to die, he kept on because there was still more music he wanted to write. “I will seize fate by the throat,” he wrote. Beethoven become, to many, the greatest composer ever.
Through his enormous output, Beethoven helped change the whole role of instrumental music. Music, he showed, was not just the creation of beautiful sound. It was an art as personal, powerful, and specific as painting or writing. Music could convey beauty, yes, but also agony, heroism, love of country, and the basic human will to survive. Beethoven’s expressive freedom became a touchstone for the Romantic movement that followed. Earlier composers wrote for the pleasure of a royal patron, but Beethoven—sustained by concerts, publication, and wealthy friends—wrote what he wanted. By putting his own character so strongly into his music, the artist himself became the hero.
Beethoven’s life in music began young, and unhappily. His unkind father pressured him heavily to become a child prodigy like Mozart. Poverty forced him to leave school at age 11, and by 18 he was supporting his younger brothers with his playing and composition. His talents stood out: At 22, when he left his hometown of Bonn for the cultural center of Vienna, Beethoven already had a circle of rich admirers and pupils. Haydn himself offered to teach him, and some already called him “the next Mozart.” In Vienna, aristocrats delighted in his compositions and amazing ability to improvise. He taught, studied, composed, and performed—often with those same aristocrats joining him in his chamber pieces as skilled amateurs. Concerts in Berlin and Prague spread his reputation. Already he’d written symphonies, piano concertos, sonatas, and string quartets. Still, if Beethoven’s career had ended then, before deafness, he’d be remembered only as a pianist and a fine composer in the Classical style of Mozart and Haydn.
Now, though, came a new creative phase. Deafness set in, eventually ending his performance career. Beethoven responded with works in a new style, powerful and heroic, that stretched musical forms in unfamiliar ways. Inspiration came, too, from without. He read deeply in literature that celebrated the worth and freedom of the individual. He saw those ideals tested out in the French Revolution of 1789. These middle years include his much-loved “Eroica” and “Pastoral” symphonies, the “Emperor” piano concerto, and the violin concerto.
Late in life, Beethoven composed less but with even greater emotional impact. Socially isolated, depressed, and completely deaf, he maintained a few loyal friends who had learned to tolerate his prickly moods and eccentric ways. By the premier of ninth symphony—a demanding work for orchestra, chorus and solists—Vienna had come to prefer light opera over Beethoven’s complex music. Yet the audience’s applause, which he could not hear at all, was tumultuous. People acknowledged him as an artist without equal. Upon his death, many thousands attended his funeral.
© Andrew Campbell