I’m very grateful for the serendipity that led to Robin Wallace’s book even if the fate governing its creation is cruel indeed.
A shy and short-sighted musicologist named Robin married a nurse named Barbara. She was losing her hearing. I suppose it had to happen eventually: that a student of Beethoven’s music would have a close-up experience of the life of a person who was gradually losing their hearing. As Robin observed Barbara’s fight to retain her ability to hear, her eventual deafness and the various strategies & responses in her life, it gave him insight into the composer’s comparable struggles in the 19th century, not just as a composer or pianist but as a man trying to cope.
Robin’s new book Hearing Beethoven is many things.
- a study of the life & music of the composer Ludwig van Beethoven.
- a memoir and love-letter to his wife Barbara
- an insightful multi-disciplinary study of the composer & his relationship to his music, both as a pianist & as a composer
- a wonderfully readable book (I devoured it in less than 24 hours,unable to put it down)
While I don’t believe this is a book for absolutely everyone (but then again what book is?), yet it creates a conversational space encompassing music & disability studies. I did not expect to be sobbing while reading a book of musicology. But it’s not just musicology, not when we’re also dealing with neuroscience, psychology, music perception & disability studies, just to mention the disciplines to which Wallace nods in the last paragraph of the book.
I hate it when film critics are spoilers, giving away key plot points. But I know I’m not giving anything away when I mention that Barbara passed away. Robin told us about her passing early in the book. Yet even so when we got to the climactic events of December 2011 ending her life Robin wrote an eloquent epilogue speaking of embracing wholeness, and I am now treading carefully, aware that I can’t possibly do it justice in just a few words. Suffice it to say that the book is so much more than musicology.
I’ve long wondered about the impact of Beethoven’s deafness on his compositions. Ever notice how playful some of them are? The opening minutes to the last movement of the Eroica for instance –going back and forth between huge loud orchestral sounds and soft little sounds surrounded by big rests—is surely a wonderfully creation. Now listen to it recalling that it comes from someone dealing with hearing loss. Notice how quiet it gets around sixteen seconds into the movement in this clip. And then it gets louder. Softer. Louder. Of course there’s more to it than just Beethoven’s hearing issues, but when seen through that lens, we see/hear it in a different light.
Is he playing with us? Maybe.
Hearing Beethoven is true to its title. While I’m delighted to have a different perspective, a whole new way of understanding the composer, yet I think I will be different in my dealings with the people I know who are having challenges with their hearing. There are at least three in my immediate family. This is a book to give you not just insight but genuine empathy. I will never hear, never play, never experience music the same way again.
Wallace offers more than just the insights into the composer’s hearing issues. For example, he makes a wonderful comparison to Mozart –another composer who was exploited by his father—before offering an insightful quotation from Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child.
Quite often we are faced here with gifted patients who have been praised and admired for their talent and their achievements… these people—the pride of their parents—should have had a strong and stable sense of self-assurance. But exactly the opposite is the case. In everything they undertake they do well and often excellently; they are admired and envied; they are successful whenever they care to be—but all to no avail. Behind all this lurks depression, the feeling of emptiness and self-alienation, and the sense that their life has no meaning. [Miller cited in Wallace p28]
Wallace connects this masterfully to Beethoven’s life.
In the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven was clearly struggling to construct a sense of self-worth based on his continued ability to compose, despite the humiliation caused by his failing hearing which he described in the 1801 letter to Wegeler. If by 1812 he was once again doubting his ability, this would be more than sufficient to explain the depths of depression that he suffered during the ensuing years. As Miller points out, such people often reach to their own children for validation, thus perpetuating the cycle. Beethoven had no child of his own, so it is hardly surprising that he now devoted a great deal of his energy to seeking one, rather than to the increasingly challenging task of composing music. [Wallace 29]
And then Wallace reminds us that Beethoven sought custody of his nephew Karl…
I think Wallace is correct to say that Beethoven did not fully lose his hearing, a matter that’s rather hard to prove one way or another, following up on an assertion in a 1994 article from George Thomas Ealy. Wallace offers the de facto evidence via Beethoven’s many efforts to obtain devices to compensate, such as hearing trumpets & attachments to pianos to magnify the sound. Although he is never as reductive as I am being in what I am about to say: one wouldn’t do that if one were completely deaf, right? Surely that means he had some hearing left, and indeed Wallace produces an enormous amount of indirect evidence suggesting that Beethoven’s hearing loss was partial & gradual rather than complete.
The book goes back and forth between chapters about Beethoven in the early 19th century, and chapters about the Wallace family drama of hearing loss. It’s so unlike what one usually finds in musicology and I must say it’s thereby so much better than what you usually get. I am a believer in multi-disciplinary approaches, and indeed an agnostic about much of the musicology I read, because I find it too narrow. I’m finally reading studies of opera that get that it’s not just music but a hybrid of text & music, a medium for spectacle & movement as well as music & words, all conditioned by complex factors of cultural contexts & market forces. The humility of Wallace’s book is not just touching but apt. Would that more musicologists would lose their egos and instead submit to the complexity of their study.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I want my mom to read it, I want my wife to read it.
And you should read it too.