201. LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Art has no limits
Can you imagine being one of Vienna’s most promising young composers, a piano virtuoso, next in line to the great Haydn and Mozart, only to discover, while in your late 20s, that you were losing your hearing? You try to keep it a secret. What would people think of a deaf composer? Surely your career would be ruined. You avoid social gatherings for two years, close yourself off to the world and retreat to the countryside to wallow in your despair. You contemplate suicide, and write a farewell letter to your brothers revealing the extent of your suffering. But you never send it. In it, you mention that there is only one thing worth living for. Your art.
“I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence.”
Well that was pretty lucky for us, because despite his misery, Ludwig van Beethoven would go on to write some of the greatest music our unworthy little ears have ever heard. He wasn’t going to let a little thing like going deaf stop him from making music! In the 10 years after that letter was written, and with his hearing gradually getting worse and worse, Beethoven composed an opera, six symphonies, four solo concerti, five string quartets, six string sonatas, seven piano sonatas, five sets of piano variations, four overtures, four trios, two sextets and 72 songs. This stage of his output, appropriately known as his ‘heroic period’ included some of his most famous works like the 5th Symphony and Moonlight Sonata.
Besides music, Beethoven’s other great love was nature. He saw them as intrinsically linked, with his music being a direct expression of nature’s beauty. His favourite pastime and source of creativity was the long, daily walks he would take in the countryside. He always carried his notebook with him, ready to write down any music that came to him, often inspired by birdsong. Unlike that show off Mozart, who could write an original concert on the spot, Beethoven’s process was a long and tortuous affair. He would constantly be scribbling down notes, have to change and revise his pieces and worked on multiple compositions at the same time over numerous years before he was satisfied.
Sure, his hearing loss, along with alcoholism and chronic stomach illness left the already grumpy Beethoven even more short-tempered, paranoid and miserable, but his saviour was always his art, which he viewed as a calling from God: “To Beethoven music was not only a manifestation of the beautiful, an art, it was akin to religion. He felt himself to be a prophet, a seer. All the misanthropy engendered by his unhappy relations with mankind, could not shake his devotion to this ideal.”
In 1824, when he was 53, and by this stage totally deaf, Beethoven completed his final masterpiece, his 9th Symphony. He was insistent that he conduct it himself at the premiere, the first time in 12 years he had performed in public, but was mainly there as a symbolic gesture (the orchestra actually followed a composer standing next to the great master). Legend goes that as the symphony ended, Beethoven was a bit off time and still conducting when the music had stopped, so an opera singer turned him around to face the rapturous audience, whom he had no idea were clapping. He received five standing ovations.
So yeah, next time you need a bit of a creative kick up the butt, remember that one of the greatest pieces of music in history was written by a deaf dude.
Quote credits: Excerpt from Letter to Emilie M. 1812. Excerpt from Quote 54, from Beethoven: the Man and the Artist, as Revealed in his own words by Ludwig van Beethoven, Edited by Friedrich Kerst and Henry Edward Krehbiel. Published in 1905 by B.W. Huebsch