Although completely deaf, Ludwig continued to crank out masterpiece after masterpiece. At age 30, Beethoven wrote to a friend, “For the last three years my hearing has grown steadily weaker…” Beethoven, still in his teens, had already earned a reputation as the most influential composer since Mozart. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he had studied with Haydn and gained widespread acclaim as a prodigiously talented pianist.
How Old Was Beethoven When He Started Going Deaf?
Beethoven first experienced ear noises around the age of 26. At age 30, he wrote from Vienna to a childhood friend who was then a doctor in Bonn explaining that he had been sick for some time.
“In the past three years, I’ve noticed a gradual decline in my hearing’s strength. When I go to the theater, I have to sit right next to the orchestra so I can hear the words and I can’t hear the high notes of the instruments or the singers’ voices if I’m too far away. When people are speaking very softly, I often have a hard time picking up their voices. What I’m hearing is true but the words themselves aren’t. But I can’t take it if people start shouting.”
The composer made an effort to conceal the issue from his loved ones. He was worried that if people found out it would be the end of his career. Because “I am deaf” is something he felt unable to tell people, he had avoided social situations for two years. It would be easier if I worked in a different field, but as it stands, I’m in a terrifying place.
During one of Beethoven and Ries’s country strolls, they happened upon a shepherd playing a pipe. Beethoven would have been able to tell from Ries’ expression that lovely music was playing but he was deaf. It is said that after Beethoven finally faced his deafness head-on, he was changed forever.
Until 1812, Beethoven reportedly had some residual hearing, allowing him to occasionally enjoy music and conversation. By the time he was 44 years old, however, he was nearly deaf and unable to hear voices or many of the sounds of the countryside he so cherished. He must have felt utterly devastated.
What Caused Beethoven’s Deafness?
We don’t know what caused his hearing loss but it’s serious. Syphilis, lead poisoning, typhus, and even his habit of dunking his head in cold water to stay awake are all possible causes.
After being interrupted at work in 1798, he supposedly went into a rage and lost it. He said he tripped and when he got up, he realized he had lost his hearing. Sometimes he said he was having stomach issues to explain his behavior.
As he explained to his doctor, “the cause of this must be the condition of my belly, which as you know has always been wretched and has been getting worse,” since he suffers from chronic diarrhea, the symptoms of which include extreme fatigue.
His inner ear was enlarged and lesions had formed by the time of his death, according to the results of the autopsy. Listen to Beethoven’s well-known Fifth Symphony from 1804. The famous opening motif is often described as “fate knocking at the door,” referring to the severe hearing loss that the protagonist fears will plague him forever.
Beethoven Sought Treatment For His Deafness
A lukewarm bath in Danube water seemed to help Beethoven’s stomach problems but his deafness worsened. “I’m feeling better and stronger except that my ears sing and buzz all the time, day and night.”
One unusual treatment was strapping wet bark to his upper arms until it dried and blistered. This didn’t cure his deafness, it just kept him away from his piano for two weeks. He stopped seeking hearing treatment after 1822. He experimented with various hearing aids, including special hearing trumpets.
How did He Compose Music If He Couldn’t Hear?
Beethoven had grown up hearing and playing music, so he knew how instruments and voices sounded and how they worked together. Because his deafness was gradual rather than sudden, he could always imagine what his compositions would sound like in his head.
Beethoven’s housekeepers remembered him sitting at the piano with a pencil in his mouth touching the other end of the instrument’s soundboard to feel the vibration of the note as his hearing deteriorated.
Beethoven’s Music Was Influenced By His Deafness
Yes. Beethoven used higher notes in his early works when he could hear a wider range of frequencies. As his hearing deteriorated, he shifted to playing on the lower notes. During this time, he composed the Moonlight Sonata, his only opera Fidelio and six symphonies.
By the end of his life, he had added high notes back into his compositions, which may have been a result of hearing the finished pieces take shape in his mind’s ear. Here is Beethoven’s Große Fuge, Op. 133 from 1826, composed entirely of those fictitious sounds.
Beethoven’s Performances Continued?
He did. However, in his attempt to hear the notes, he damaged numerous pianos by banging on them with excessive force. While listening to Beethoven practice the Archduke Trio in 1814, composer Louis Spohr remarked “The poor deaf man pounded the keys so hard in forte passages that the strings jangled and he played so softly in piano that entire groups of notes were left out, making the music incomprehensible unless one looked into the pianoforte part. My heart broke at the thought of such a cruel ending.”
Beethoven insisted on conducting the premiere of his monumental Ninth Symphony. They brought in Michael Umlauf, another conductor to work alongside the composer. After Beethoven’s instructions were disregarded, Umlauf instructed the musicians to do as he said.
Beethoven was oblivious to the enthusiastic response to his symphony. The young contralto Carolina Unger allegedly went up to the maestro and turned him around so he could acknowledge the applause from the audience. In the film Immortal Beloved, Gary Oldman portrays Beethoven, so this is how the scene could have played out:
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