Ludwig van Beethoven is undoubtedly one of the greatest composers in history. His music has left a timeless mark on the world, still listened to and loved to this day. His contribution to music is all the more impressive given that he had a hearing defect and was deaf when he wrote his most famous pieces.
Beethoven’s frustration with his hearing impairment, which impacted his life and musical ability, is apparent in a historical letter that he wrote during a difficult period of his life. The letter, which explores the desperation Beethoven felt, has been selected by Of Lost Time, which publishes collections of historical letters, for inclusion in one of its anthologies.
Of Lost Time Selects a Letter Beethoven Wrote in Heiligenstadt
On May 7, 1824, Beethoven’s ninth symphony was played for the first time in Vienna. The audience’s reaction was one of great applause and appreciation, reportedly making Beethoven overcome with emotion. Unfortunately, the one person who was unable to hear the ninth symphony, which would go on to become one of the most famous compositions in history, was the composer himself.
At this point, Beethoven was completely deaf and unable to hear the music that had moved the audience to much applause. His hearing impairment weighed heavily on him, for he had lost the most crucial sense he had depended on for his art. This frustration is apparent in the historical letter that Of Lost Time has chosen for publication.
Resigned to a physical fate that all musicians would dread, and already socially isolated, Beethoven withdrew himself further from society. Following the advice of his physician, he moved to the town of Heiligenstadt, Vienna for the countryside air. It was during his stay here that he wrote the letter chosen by Of Lost Time, in which he addressed his impairment and the individuals who believed him ill-mannered because of his isolation from society.
“Oh you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn, or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me,” Beethoven wrote. “You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you. From my childhood on my heart and soul have been full of the tender feeling of goodwill, and I was ever inclined to accomplish great things. But, think that for six years now I have been hopelessly afflicted, made worse by senseless physicians, from year to year deceived with hopes of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady.”
Beethoven’s Historical Letter Reveals His Dedication to Music
In the letter, Beethoven continued in more depth about the frustration he experienced with being unable to socialise with others, explaining that his hearing defect inhibited his ability to communicate.
“Though born with a fiery, active temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was soon compelled to isolate myself to live life alone. If I at any time resolved to surmount all this, oh how cruelly was I again repelled by the experience sadder than ever of my defective hearing and yet I found it impossible to say to others ‘speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.’
“Alas, how could I proclaim the deficiency of a sense which ought to have been more perfect with me than with other men? A sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, forgive me therefore when you see me withdraw from you with whom I would so gladly mingle. Completely isolated, I only enter society when compelled to do so and must live like one in exile. In company, I am assailed by the most painful apprehensions from the dread of being exposed to the risk of my condition being observed.”
Emphasising the emotional pain he experienced when others had heard something he could not, Beethoven explained that this had pushed him to a desperate point and he contemplated suicide. However, it was his love for his art that inevitably allowed him to continue with his life and passion.
“What humiliation when anyone besides me heard a flute in the far distance while I heard nothing, or when others heard a shepherd singing and I still heard nothing. Such things brought me to the verge of desperation and almost caused me to put an end to my life. Art alone deterred me. It seemed unthinkable for me to leave the world before bringing forth all that I felt called upon to produce and thus, I spared this miserable life. God looks into my heart, he searches it and knows that love for mankind and the desire to do good have their abode there with one end in his mouth and the other on the soundboard.”
Although this letter illuminates the deep-rooted frustrations and torment that Beethoven lived through, he continued to dedicate his life to music despite his deafness. He used a pencil to feel the vibrations of the notes on his piano, enabling him to compose the timeless pieces of music still enjoyed to this day.
This historical letter perfectly encapsulates the dedication Beethoven had to his art despite his physical disconnection from it. Not to be outdone by his hearing defect, Beethoven believed it was his duty to share his gift with the world, and this ultimately provided him with the dedication to continue his craft and his life. Even in Beethoven’s darkest moments, the historical letter enables readers to see the powerful effect that art can have on the artist.
Storytelling Through Letters
Of Lost Time, the literary unit of the progressive scientific and medical publisher Future Science Group, sources and publishes letters written by and to notable figures throughout history. The letters each tell a story about the remarkable life of an individual or the contributions they have made to society. Each collection comprises approximately 100 letters that focus on a specific theme such as sport or incarceration. Of Lost Time also hosts a blog and a series of informational videos on some of the letters it publishes.