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.

Must-Have New Release: BEETHOVEN. Period.

There are things we enjoy all our lives yet usually take for granted. Things like fresh air, clean water. And there’s something else we may take for granted: Music. While it might not jeopardize our physical health right away if it disappeared, it certainly would affect us emotionally.

Music stirs the emotions greatly and actually can affect the overall state of our health. That is one reason why a new album of Beethoven’s complete music for cello and piano has certainly stirred my emotional juices and added to the overall quality of my days.

BEETHOVEN PeriodI admit that for awhile until recently I had not been paying much attention to Beethoven’s cello sonatas and sets of variations. Granted, I am never unaware of the presence of the recordings of these works we have in the WDAV library. But, recently I feel cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O’Riley (host of public radio’s “From the Top” show), who have been touring the country performing Beethoven’s five cello sonatas and the three sets of variations, have taken these masterpieces to a whole new level.

The title of this new double CD set is, BEETHOVEN. Period. Just Beethoven. No elevated pyrotechnics for show-off’s sake. Read between the lines of the album’s title and you will find Matt Haimovitz with his beloved Venetian 1710 Goffriller cello outfitted with ox-gut strings and an early 19th-century rosewood tailpiece, and an equally precious bow from the same period. Christopher O’Riley plays an original 1823 Broadwood fortepiano. These are the types of instruments thoroughly familiar to Beethoven and his musician friends. Whatever inner processes Matt and Chris have developed, they have channeled themselves back to Beethoven and his time to give us a seemingly true sense of the performance sound Beethoven must have heard. Yes, the first two sonatas and the variations sets Beethoven wrote before he went deaf, so I certainly do imagine old Ludwig van hearing these truly authentic performances by Matt and Chris.

The Beethoven Sonatas hold an exalted place in the cello repertoire alongside Bach’s Solo Cello Suites, and these two powerful musicians remind us that we must not take these works for granted. And these remarkable performances will strengthen your overall sense of being. After all, it’s BEETHOVEN. Period.

Hear recent WDAV Performance/Chats by Matt Haimowitz and Christopher O’Riley:

Beethoven 101, Part 4: Missa Solemnis

Soon after the composition of the Emperor Concerto, Beethoven’s production began to decline. Most likely due to his increasing deafness, Beethoven has now passed the prime of his career. He soon became completely deaf, and many reported he even slipped into a slight madness.

Beethoven composed two settings of the Mass, his Mass in C and the Missa Solemnis. The Missa Solemnis was written around the same time as his famous Ninth Symphony and therefore did not garner the same attention following its premiere in 1824. While Beethoven was churning out the Missa Solemnis and his Ninth Symphony, the custody battle for his nephew remained a major challenge for the composer. He struggled financially and emotionally, and yet this is when we see the appearance of some of Beethoven’s greatest works.

The Missa Solemnis maintains a distinct difference compared to many of Beethoven’s previous works. When compared to many of his other works, the Solemnis changes its character throughout the piece. It is a complex mass and apparently Beethoven’s own character changed while he was composing the piece. He supposedly went through a almost religious transformation and would often be heard singing and stamping his feet while working on this piece.

The Missa Solemnis was written for the Archduke’s elevation to Cardinal and then to Archbishop. The work, however, was soon forgotten and today is severely underperformed. While Beethoven composed the work, he utilized his aristocratic connections to win custody of his nephew Karl, but ironically Beethoven himself was not entirely a fit guardian for the child. He spent his later years attempting to teach Karl music. He ultimately failed at this endeavor, and it is widely believed his experiences with Karl influenced his musical style during the final stages of his life.


Beethoven 101: Explore the Series

Beethoven 101, Part I: Beethoven’s Life

Beethoven 101, Part II: Sinfonia Eroica

Beethoven 101, Part III: Emperor Concerto

Beethoven 101, Part IV: Missa Solemnis

Beethoven 101, Part 3: “Emperor Concerto”

The Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, which is popularly known as “Emperor Concerto,” was Beethoven’s last piano concerto. In the years following the composition of his “Sinfonia Eroica,” Beethoven was challenged by the public and critics concerning his composing abilities. He also slipped deeper into deafness, and he began to retreat from society and become extremely untidy. Nevertheless, Beethoven showed he was still a capable and powerful composer.

Several masterpieces seemed to flow from the pen of Beethoven during the 1810s. His Piano Concerto No. 5, which premiered in 1811, was followed by the 7th and 8th Symphonies, as well as the Les Adieux Piano Sonata. Beethoven’s extreme belief in himself came into play around the time. Through his music, he began to break new ground in the classical music world.

His “Emperor Concerto” became arguably the most performed and beloved of his piano concertos. This popularity was largely due to the advancements of piano technology at about the time the work premiered. When the concerto was performed in Vienna in 1811, Carl Czerny — one of Beethoven’s students — performed on a more advanced piano than what had been used in the past. This allowed for the piece to attract more notice because the new piano allowed Czerny more power of expression. Therefore, the advancement of piano technology, coupled with Beethoven’s brilliance, cemented this piece in legendary status for years to come.

While the name “Emperor Concerto” dates back to Beethoven’s time, most scholars believe that Beethoven himself did not give this concerto that name — an understandable theory, especially given his change of heart after dedicating “Sinfonia Eroica” for Napoleon. Some people believe that the name derived from a comment made by an officer of Napoleon’s, stationed in Vienna and attending the Czerny performance. Supposedly, the man proclaimed it to be “an emperor of a concerto.” Whether or not the story is true, many would agree with that man’s words today.

And now, enjoy Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, an “emperor of a concerto”:

Next week we look at one of Beethoven’s last compositions, the Missa Solemnis, and the end of the composer’s life in the final installment of our four part series on Ludwig van Beethoven.


Beethoven 101: Explore the Series

Beethoven 101, Part I: Beethoven’s Life

Beethoven 101, Part II: Sinfonia Eroica

Beethoven 101, Part III: Emperor Concerto

Beethoven 101, Part IV: Missa Solemnis

Beethoven 101, Part 2 of 4: “Sinfonia Eroica”

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, also known as the Eroica, is a four-movement work that represents Beethoven’s influence on both the Romantic and Classical eras of music. The Eroica developed during a period in Beethoven’s life that came after the Heiligenstadt Testament. This testament detailed his contemplations of suicide due to his increasing deafness and physical illness and his decision to continue living only to continue creating music.

The years following the 1802 composition of his Testament were full of increased creativity and productivity for Beethoven. He composed several pieces along with the Eroica at this time, including the Moonlight Sonata and his Third Piano Concerto. Beethoven intended for the symphony to serve as a dedication to the Frenchman Napoleon Bonaparte, who — at the time — Beethoven viewed as the epitome of humanism. When Napoleon appointed himself Emperor of France, however, Beethoven furiously erased his dedication to the man and replaced it with “Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.” The Eroica was meant to be a testament to the humanist movement and ideals that it represented, but in the end, was a rejection of all Napoleon was as an Emperor.

The Eroica is a rigorous piece and one that was written with great emotional depth. This symphony highlights Beethoven’s development of the Heroic style. The influence of Bonaparte, the French Revolution, and the German enlightenment were dominant figures in influencing the composer during this period. The Eroica is a milestone in the development of this style which is characterized by driving rhythms and dynamic changes throughout the piece. Through this piece we see the dramatic depth and deep orchestration that will come to characterize Beethoven’s break with earlier periods of Western Music.

Beethoven 101: Explore the Series

Beethoven 101, Part I: Beethoven’s Life

Beethoven 101, Part II: Sinfonia Eroica

Beethoven 101, Part III: Emperor Concerto

Beethoven 101, Part IV: Missa Solemnis

Beethoven 101, Part 1 of 4

Ludwig van Beethoven represented the bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western classical music, but many might not know how his  life and experiences influenced his compositions.

The German composer was born in Bonn in 1770. His father served as his first music teacher and — as legend has it — he was a very strict teacher. Johann van Beethoven supposedly forced his children to stand at the piano even if they cried in protest. This is, many believe, merely legend, but nevertheless Beethoven’s musical talent became obvious during his lessons. He would perform his first public performance at the age of seven, and soon Beethoven was performing regularly as his family depended on the money he was awarded by local aristocrats.

Beethoven's house of birth in Bonn, Germany. It now serves as the Beethoven House Museum.

Beethoven’s house of birth in Bonn, Germany. It now serves as the Beethoven House Museum.

As a young man, Beethoven became widely known as Mozart’s successor. Beethoven knew this, and he began to study Mozart’s work intensely and composed works with the great composer as his influence. Beethoven soon left Bonn for Vienna amid fears of war spreading from France in late 1792. Once in Vienna, he steadily established his career as a performer and composer. He became known for his improvisations while playing in the homes of the Austrian nobility and was celebrated as a piano virtuoso.

By the age of 26, Beethoven’s deafness became an ever-problematic aspect of the composer’s life.  He did not completely lose his hearing until later, and he acknowledged his condition in the infamous “Heiligenstadt Testament.” This letter, addressed to his brothers, recorded his thoughts of suicide due to his escalating deafness. He wrote, however, that he would continue his life for the sole purpose of his music.

The end of Beethoven’s life became a struggle not only because of his increasing deafness as he began to decline in several ways. His health was deteriorating, his brother Carl became ill and passed away, and finally his struggle to gain custody of his brother’s son became a large emotional and monetary investment. Beethoven considered his brother’s wife, Johanna, an unfit guardian and pursued custody of the child. This battle dragged on and took financial and emotional tolls on the composer for most of the later stages of his life until his death. Beethoven’s life provides a glimpse into the emotion and passion behind his musical compositions.

Beethoven 101: Explore the Series

Beethoven 101, Part II: Sinfonia Eroica

Beethoven 101, Part III: Emperor Concerto

Beethoven 101, Part IV: Missa Solemnis