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The strange saga of Beethoven’s skull

By Lawrence Toppman

Metaphorically speaking, contemporaries seldom knew where Beethoven’s head was at when he composed. Physically speaking, that was true after he decomposed. Most of his skull remains in Vienna’s Central Cemetery, along with the rest of him — but not all.

After his funeral in 1827, the body went to a cemetery in Währing northwest of Vienna. On a bizarre note, a grave-digger was allegedly offered money to remove the head, so Beethoven’s friends kept watch over the grave.

In 1863, scientists dug up Beethoven and Schubert (who lay nearby) to study the bodies and re-inter them. Phrenology became popular in the first half of the 19th century, so they may have wanted to “read” skeletal bumps. Romeo Seligmann, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Vienna, reportedly acquired fragments of Beethoven’s skull. (More of him in a minute.) Some of Beethoven’s ear bones also went missing, probably in an attempt to see what caused his deafness.

The Viennese dug him up again in 1888 to move him to Central Cemetery. Historians say elderly composer Anton Bruckner, himself eight years away from the grave, attended the ceremony; by one account, he cradled Beethoven’s skull in his hands and may have dropped a lens from his pince-nez into the coffin, so a piece of him would lodge with Beethoven forever. (He also did his skull-seizing act on Schubert and had to be removed from both proceedings.)

Meanwhile, the skull fragments from Seligmann’s collection made their way through generations of family members and landed at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University. Alas, the Californians discovered in 2015 that these pieces could not have come from Beethoven’s skull, after all.

Why does all this matter? Why did Bruckner, a devout Roman Catholic, treat the skull like a holy relic? Aside from medical questions – would ear fragments really tell us anything? – what difference does it make where the bones lie?

Maybe we’re so awestruck by his genius that we keep searching for a physical explanation. How did this overweight, hard-drinking, frequently ill man produce such an array of masterpieces? Was it simply cerebral hardwiring? A creative spark from God? Or can we find a clue among the remnants of his broken body? The question can never be answered, but we ask it anyway.

What the deaf man heard

By Lawrence Toppman

Most of us probably think Beethoven went deaf relatively early, then churned out masterpieces for decades without hearing a note. The 1994 film “Immortal Beloved” popularized that idea, and it seems as astonishing as a blind person climbing Mount Everest. (Two have done so, though the Nepalese government has now banned solo climbers and blind or severely disabled people to cut down on fatalities.)

But new evidence suggests Beethoven might have retained partial hearing up to a year before his death. A recent BBC Music Magazine article reports that Kent State University professor Theodore Albrecht has been translating 12 volumes of Beethoven’s conversation books, written notes passed to him when conversation became too difficult. Sometimes he spoke to visitors; sometimes he wrote back and kept his jottings after they left.

Scholars have long debated the cause of his deafness. “Immortal Beloved” attributes the first symptoms to a clout on the ear by his drunken father; that’s far-fetched, though Johann did beat his son when the boy disobeyed him. Lead in Beethoven’s blood seems likelier; merchants illegally added leaded sugar to sweeten cheap wines in the 18th century. Possibly diabetes and hepatitis contributed to it, or a recurrence of childhood smallpox. (He suffered ill health all his life.)

He tried many useless cures: medicines, bleeding, leeching, cold baths and lukewarm baths, even painful applications of tree bark to his body to absorb “healing” chemicals. His hearing started to fail at 27 and declined over his last three decades. Some writers believe he heard almost nothing as early as the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in 1808.

Yet he reportedly listened through an ear trumpet to his nephew playing a piano in 1820, when Beethoven was almost 50. Three years later, says Albrecht, he advised a man going deaf, “Do not use mechanical devices too early; by abstaining from them, I have fairly preserved my left ear.”

Albrecht thinks the composer could hear at least some of his Ninth Symphony at its premiere in May 1824 and may faintly have heard the last premiere he supervised, his String Quartet No. 13 in B Flat, in March 1826.

I’d like to think so. Beethoven’s life contained so much unhappiness – physical, romantic, familial, financial – that it cheers me to believe he could appreciate on some level the extraordinary music he gave us.

Pictured: Gary Oldman in Immortal Beloved; © by Columbia Pictures.

The father of the tone poem

By Lawrence Toppman

We take tone poems in classical music for granted today. Think of lovers swooning and dying during Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” overture. Liszt composed 13 symphonic poems, including works that aurally describe Orpheus, Hamlet and Prometheus. Berlioz wrote the longest popular piece of program music when he depicted a witches’ sabbath, march to the scaffold and other settings in Symphonie Fantastique.

Mussorgsky summoned an art gallery full of paintings in “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The modern equivalents are film soundtracks, where John Williams can reinforce the flying chaos of a quidditch match or the horrors of an encounter with Voldemort in “Harry Potter” scores.

So where did this trend start? I’d say it began in 1808 with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. (Guest conductor JoAnn Falletta was supposed to lead the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in performances April 3-5, with Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto and Kodaly’s “Dances of Galánta.” She may yet, as the CSO hopes to reschedule cancelled concerts.)

Baroque and Classical era composers portrayed nonmusical things before that, of course. Telemann recreated animal sounds in his “Cricket” symphony and “The Frogs” overture. Handel offered visions of biblical plagues – the buzzing flies work especially well – in the oratorio “Israel in Egypt.” Composers often used martial instruments and rhythms to convey military actions; Beethoven himself did that in “Wellington’s Victory,” his 1813 “battle symphony” for a concert benefiting Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded at the Battle of Hanau.

Yet all 45 minutes of his Pastoral Symphony reveal Beethoven’s impressions of nature. He loved to walk in the country, believing it helped alleviate his deafness. He titled the movements to carry the listener through an afternoon he’d have enjoyed, interrupted by tense moments but ending in joy: “Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside,” “Scene by the brook,” “Merry gathering of country folk,” “Thunder; Storm,” “Shepherd’s song; Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm.” If you’ve seen “Fantasia,” with its centaurs and cupids and tipsy Bacchus, you know Disney’s abbreviated, cheesy interpretation.

Nobody before Beethoven had written so long a programmatic piece, one that depicted places and events in every note. The idea took a while to catch fire, but Mendelssohn produced his overture to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1826. (He finished an hour-long score in 1842.) Berlioz wrote Symphonie Fantastique in 1830 in five movements, as Beethoven had done in his Pastoral. The floodgates opened, and we’ve seen “pictures in music” ever since.

How Self-Acceptance Became the Secret to Beethoven’s Success

By Heidi North

As we continue our celebration of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, I’ve been focused on the remarkable ways Beethoven’s music flourished despite what should have been a career-ending disability. In 1798, just as he was entering the height of his popularity, Beethoven began to lose his hearing, losing it entirely by 1816.

Though he lived during the era of Enlightenment, a period that saw a positive shift in how people viewed the disabled in society, Beethoven suffered from rampant ableism. The affliction cost him marriage proposals, most notably the Countess Guilietta Guicciardi, whose father refused Beethoven because he believed the composer’s deafness would prevent him from composing. Beethoven lost many friendships due to his depression and self-isolation from society as deafness set in. He would snap piano strings from violent playing to hear the music, ending his ability to perform live.

In 1802, during a visit to Heiligenstadt, Vienna, Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers Carl and Johan, known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. In this account, Beethoven lamented his afflictions, his mental anguish, and that he had contemplated suicide. He had decided in the end to go on living for his art.

To compose, he lowered pianos to the ground and played with a pencil in his mouth, both in order to hear the vibrations of the notes. He pressed his ears on the piano keys to try to hear the music. Sometimes, he would compose for days on end, sticking his head in buckets of ice water to stay awake, and to sharpen his other functioning senses. He wrote pieces in lower scales because he could no longer hear high notes. He used ear trumpets, with one strapped to his head at times, and carried a notebook so that he could converse in writing with others.

If you listen closely to Beethoven’s music, you can hear these struggles, especially in the opening dissonance of the 3rd symphony, the tragic melody of the 7th symphony’s second movement, and the infamous “fate knocking at the door” theme of the 5th symphony. You can hear his triumphs in the comedic last movement of the 8th symphony, the overcoming of hardship in Fidelio, and the sound of freedom in the fearless Ninth Symphony. Most importantly, you can hear the heroic fruits of Beethoven’s never-ending persistence in working with, not against his disability.