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> > > > Beethoven: challenging prejudice about the composers' deafness as personal tragedy

8 January 2015

Beethoven’s deafness is a topic which needs and deserves much more thorough investigation, says Emmeline Burdett responding to a recent column by Philip Collins in the Times newspaper. The article is just one illustration of how discriminatory language persists unchecked in the media

oil painting of the composer Beethoven with pen and paper in hand

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the 'Missa Solemnis'. Joseph Karl Stieler, oil on canvas, 1820

On 8 November 2014, the Times newspaper published an item by one of its columnists, Philip Collins, in which Collins related a well-known story about the composer Beethoven. Beethoven had been growing progressively deafer throughout much of his adult life, and by the time his great work Ode to Joy – the end of his Ninth Symphony - premiered in Vienna in 1824, he was very deaf indeed.

During the premiere, Beethoven stood next to the conductor to indicate the proper speed at which the music should be played.

Allegedly, Beethoven, unaware that the piece had come to an end and, with his back to the applauding audience, carried on beating time. It was not until the contralto Caroline Ungher put her hands on his waist and turned him round to face the audience that he realised that the piece was over. Collins writes ‘As the audience realised that he could not hear them, they responded, movingly and uselessly, with a colossal crescendo’. 

At first glance this appears to be a story about Beethoven, but it is in fact about everyone except Beethoven. It is primarily about Caroline Ungher, who allegedly came to Beethoven’s aid; after that it is about the applauding audience at the premiere; in this instance it is also about Philip Collins, who is retelling the story. Collins writes himself into the story by describing the audience’s applause for Beethoven as being ‘moving and useless’.    

Collins’ description indicates the problematic nature of this story. For example, who is supposed to be ‘moved’ by the audience’s reaction when they realised that Beethoven could not hear them? Similarly, the description of the audience ‘uselessly’ applauding Beethoven points to a quintessentially ‘tragic’ figure – a deaf composer who could hear neither his own work being performed nor the audience’s appreciative reaction to it - (The broadcaster and Beethoven expert John Suchet has described Beethoven’s deafness as ‘the single most disastrous fate that could possibly befall a musician’). The fact that Beethoven was perfectly capable of seeing the audience’s reaction has been overlooked. 

Beethoven himself did not underestimate the challenges that his hearing loss posed, writing in a letter that ‘in my profession it is a terrible handicap’. Nevertheless, the predilection for treating Beethoven’s deafness as an individual tragedy of no wider significance prevents it being properly seen as something which took place within a societal context, and as something which may be freely discussed. For example, in his 2012 book Beethoven: The Man Revealed, John Suchet prefaces virtually every mention of Beethoven’s deafness with his own remark about how ‘tragic’ it was. 

Over the course of the book, he calls Beethoven’s deafness ‘disastrous’, ‘terrible’, a ‘dreadful affliction’, and so on. This is quite different from a recognition that Beethoven’s encroaching deafness may well have been frightening, irritating and isolating, and even useful at different times. Perhaps most crucially, the attitude towards Beethoven’s deafness taken by John Suchet and Philip Collins tells the reader what to think, and in doing so, closes off the possibility that there could be anything to investigate here – Beethoven’s deafness is a personal tragedy, and thus, making some remark about how ‘tragic’ it was is the appropriate response to it. By contrast, an awareness that impairment happens within a societal context would change the way it was discussed.

There are two particular examples which show how the subject of Beethoven’s deafness had a societal component. Firstly, there is the question of his marriage. One of Beethoven’s pupils – Countess Guilietta Guicciardi, to whom he dedicated the Moonlight Sonata – was a sixteen-year-old noblewoman. Beethoven fell in love with her, and his affection was returned. Her father, however, forbade the pair to marry, on the basis that Beethoven: 

‘was afflicted with the incipient stages of an infirmity which, if not arrested and cured, must deprive him of all hope of attaining any high and remunerative official appointment, and at length compel him to abandon his career as the great pianoforte virtuoso’.

An awareness that Beethoven’s deafness existed within a societal context leads away from a simplistic assumption that it alone was responsible for the loss of his marriage prospects. It suggests further reflection, such as whether the Countess’s father was basing his assertion upon anything other than his own preconceived ideas.  

A related issue which is worth investigating is that of the well-documented pressure that Beethoven felt to pretend that he was not deaf, and of social isolation resulting from his fear that people would ‘find out’ about it. Beethoven discusses this in letters to friends, as well as in such documents as his Last Will and Testament. An appreciation of the societal context in which he had his deafness might lead, for example, to questions about the effect that the collapse of his marriage hopes and the reasons his prospective father-in-law gave for not permitting his daughter to marry Beethoven might have had on this.

Far from being an uncomplicated case of ‘personal tragedy’, Beethoven’s deafness is a topic which needs and deserves much more thorough investigation.
Dr Emmeline Burdett is an associate of the Centre for Culture and Disability Studies (CCDS) at Liverpool Hope University, and a book reviewer for H-Disability, which is part of H-Net, an online humanities resource run by Michigan State University.



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