Last season, the Jacksonville Symphony brought opera back during a two week long festival celebrating one of the most famous composers of all time: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. For their 70th season, the symphony is dedicated to bringing to life multiple works from another monumental composer – Ludwig van Beethoven.
Born in 1770, Beethoven is known for paving the way for the future of the musical art form. December 2020 will mark his 250th birthday, the perfect occasion for the Jacksonville Symphony to celebrate this composer’s legacy. With musical highlights including “Ode to Joy,” the opening notes of his Fifth Symphony, Fur Elise, and his Moonlight Sonata, Beethoven may be the most recognizable composer of all time.
By the time he was twenty-six, Beethoven had already started to experience loss of hearing. That didn’t stop him though. By the end of his life, when he was completely deaf, he had composed over three-hundred works (some of which were not published until after his death).
Knowing the prolific impact Beethoven had on classical music, the case of his deafness becomes an even more interesting characteristic. How is it possible that he was able to create such powerful music without the ability to hear it? Beethoven himself admits to have struggled with this.
“For two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people ‘I am deaf’,” he wrote. “If I belonged to any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a frightful state.”
As his hearing deteriorated over the years, Beethoven found himself retreating from the public eye. He only accepted a few close friends as visitors and struggled with his degrading state and the isolation and depression that came with it. So how was it he continued to write music that remains a key part of the classical music repertoire?
Music is a language in and of itself. And like spoken languages, music has rules that guide its creation. Having spent most of his life writing music, Beethoven was still able to use those rules in a soundless world to compose. Having also had a gradual deterioration of his hearing, Beethoven was more than familiar with each instrument’s voice and where it fit within the ensemble. It is said that as his hearing diminished, Beethoven’s housekeepers would see him at the piano, grasping a pencil in his mouth while reaching out to touch the other end of the instrument’s soundboard in order to feel the vibration of the note he was playing.
Although the rules surrounding music allowed Beethoven to continue composing, there is still a difference to be heard in his works as his deafness became a more prominent part of his life. Since his hearing started to fail, Beethoven would choose to write with lower notes because he was still able to hear those more clearly than those in a higher register. Moonlight Sonata, six of his symphonies, and Fidelio, his only opera, were written during this time period. Towards the end of his life, he was more than likely writing completely from sounds he was hearing in his head, which led to the return of higher notes as he let go of physical sound.
Beethoven’s continued determination to compose, even after having lost a majority of his hearing, is what led to some of his most powerful music, Missa Solemnis and his instantly recognizable Ninth Symphony included. Beethoven is perhaps one of the best examples of overcoming adversity and the incredible impact that music provided during his experience. Regardless of how much his depression weighed on him, he could not stop hearing music. From his silence and his struggles, he was able to bring us one of the most uplifting selections in the classical repertoire: Symphony No. 9, a “declaration in favor of universal brotherhood.”