A World Without Beethoven?
August 3, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
At a party recently I got into a very involved discussion about Beethoven. My conversation partner was a filmmaker, not a musician, and we talked about various film versions of Beethoven’s life and career. What could be more dramatic? Beethoven was an innovative composer who wrote thoughtful, beautiful music, and whose career took off just as his hearing began to deteriorate. Beethoven, barely thirty, was faced with a terrible situation: worsening deafness, a performance career nearly over, an uncertain future. It's no wonder that this life has inspired so many dramatic interpretations. My filmmaker friend was actually contemplating the subject for one of his own projects. He asked me about Beethoven's spirit. Had he ever wanted to give up? What would that moment be like, my friend wondered, in which Beethoven decided to continue to compose in the face of the one infirmity that probably seemed insurmountable?
There is no need to wonder what it was like, because this particular moment was captured in a document, a letter that was found after Beethoven’s death, a letter that was never sent. It’s called the Heiligenstadt Testament, named for the city in which Beethoven penned it. But before we get to the letter, let’s talk about Beethoven’s life around 1800.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Beethoven must have felt very encouraged by some things that were happening. He had written his first set of string quartets. He composed the “Pathetique” Sonata in 1798 and the “Moonlight” Sonata in 1801. The First Symphony premiered in April of 1800, to favorable reviews. In 1801, Beethoven composed a ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, which was performed numerous times in the season. But all was not well. The hearing problems that he had experienced since 1796 were only getting worse. It was a ringing sensation, known as “tinnitus” that might have been a result of an auto-immune disorder or some other condition. Leaving aside his professional concerns about such a problem, there were social consequences as well. Conversation was difficult, and Beethoven sometimes avoided social gatherings, adding to his feelings of isolation. Professionally, the gradual loss of hearing meant Beethoven was losing the sense that he probably felt he needed the most, but it also meant losing a significant avenue for income. Beethoven ended up proving that a good sense of hearing was not necessary for composition, but as a teacher and a performer—especially one who worked with ensembles—hearing was an absolute necessity. So, performing and giving lessons—two ways Beethoven made money—could not continue indefinitely.
On the advice of a doctor, Beethoven moved to Heiligenstadt for seven months in 1802. While there, Beethoven wrote the letter later known as the Heiligenstadt Testament to his brothers Carl and Johann (although Johann’s name doesn’t actually appear—Beethoven left blanks for some reason) on October 6 1802, with an addendum 4 days later. It was first published October 1827, the first October after Beethoven’s death.
Beethoven begins by saying that people who think he is misanthropic don’t know the real story. He explains that his journey to this point of despair has taken six years of seeing doctors, but without hope. He says he is “finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take year or, perhaps, be impossible).” Besides bringing him great sadness, Beethoven found the whole problem humiliating as well:
“Ah, how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection, a perfection such as few surely in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed.”
Far beyond mere embarrassment, though, this tragedy caused a crisis in the young composer, who attempted to explain to his brothers what he was thinking and feeling. Beethoven experienced some very dark moments:
“But what humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and 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.”
It was not only his hearing loss that concerned him; Beethoven experienced chronic abdominal pain that plagued him from his twenties until his death. His doctor at the time diagnosed an inflammation of the intestines. Beethoven called the pains he experienced, “terrible attacks of Kolik.” In 1970, Edward Larkin looked at the evidence and put forth the idea that Beethoven suffered from some auto-immune disorder, which could have caused colitis. The chronic pain and the deafness undoubtedly caused a great deal of suffering for Beethoven.
Imagine a world without Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the Ninth, the Diabelli Variations, late String Quartets. That might have happened. Beethoven talks about his death in the last part of the letter. He tells his brothers that they are the heirs to whatever material possessions he would leave behind. He also asks that his doctor describe his illness and attach it to the letter so that the world would know what was really going on. “With joy I hasten towards death—if it comes before I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities it will still come too early for me…but even then I am satisfied, will it not free me from my endless suffering?” In the addendum, he adds to his goodbyes, which are full of poetry.
Beethoven put this letter away, and he continued to write music, and even perform for a little while longer. He didn’t have an easy go of it. Physical illness got in the way of his productivity more than once. He was also quite involved in the custody battle with his brother's widow, Johanna, over his nephew Karl. This battle took five years to resolve. His hearing continued to deteriorate, and Beethoven began using conversation books to communicate with people. Freinds would write something and he would either speak back or write his responses. He composed more symphonies, his only song cycle, “An die ferne Geliebte,” and the Missa Solemnis. He took up writing solo piano music again, not for his own use as a performer, but because publishers knew those pieces would sell. In short, he worked as much as he was able, between bouts of illness. And in his final years, he did so, with little to no hearing, and with uncommon determination.
Beethoven continues to be an inspiration to many, including me. He composed some of the world’s most famous and most favorite pieces. And he did it all burdened with pain, often alone, and with little to no sense of hearing. He's often portrayed in films as grumpy and even rude, and perhaps this is what he was like. But there was a light of hope in him, a flame that refused to be extinguished. He suffered through the physical problems knowing that there was something else he needed to say to the world. There were times he lived for that alone, and it was enough.