Composer Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1770, almost 250 years ago.
The Heiligenstadt Testament was addressed to the composer’s two brothers, Carl & Johann, as a last will and testament. Written in October 1802 as the composer approached his 32nd birthday, this autumnal piece of work about the great secret of his life was never seen by anyone other than the composer until months after he died in 1827. A small part of the document is about what he leaves behind, while the greatest part concerns his identity, the pretense of his youth.
Let’s look at excerpts from an English translation quoted in George Marek’s Beethoven: biography of a genius (1961).
O my fellow men, who consider me, or describe me as, unfriendly, peevish or even misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. For you do not know the secret reason why I appear to you to be so. Ever since my childhood my heart and soul have been imbued with the tender feeling of goodwill, and I have always been ready to perform even great actions. But just think, for the last six years I have been afflicted with an incurable complaint which has been made worse by incompetent doctors. From year to year my hopes of being cured have gradually been shattered and finally I have been forced to accept the prospect of permanent infirmity (the curing of which may perhaps take years or may even prove to be impossible). Though endowed with a passionate and lively temperament and even fond of the distractions offered by society I was soon obliged to seclude myself and live in solitude. If at times I decided just to ignore my infirmity, alas! How cruelly was I then driven back by the intensified sad experience of my poor hearing. Yet I could not bring myself to say to people: “Speak up, shout, for I am deaf.” Alas! How could I possibly refer to the impairing of a sense which in me should be more perfectly developed than in other people, a sense which at one time I possessed in the greatest perfection, even to a degree of perfection such as assuredly few in my profession possess or have ever possessed—Oh, I cannot do it; so forgive me, if you ever see me withdrawing from your company which I used to enjoy. Moreover my misfortune pains me doubly, inasmuch as it leads to my being misjudged. For me there can be no relaxation in human society, no refined conversations, no mutual confidences. I must live quite alone and may creep into society only as often as sheer necessity demands; I must live like an outcast. If I appear in company I am overcome by a burning anxiety, a fear that I am running the risk of letting people notice my condition—And that has been my experience during the last six months which I have spent in the country. My sensible doctor by suggesting that I should spare my hearing as much as possible has more or less encouraged my present natural inclination, though indeed when carried away now and then by my instinctive desire for human society I have let myself be tempted to seek it. But how humiliated I have felt if somebody standing beside me heard the sound of a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or if somebody heard a shepherd sing and again I heard nothing—Such experiences almost made me despair and I was on the point of putting an end to my life—The only thing that held me back was my art.
This, the first part of the document, shows Beethoven’s despondency, describing not just the drama of his growing deafness but also the additional layer of his masquerade, his need to conceal his condition as he continued to perform at the piano. Eventually his secret was revealed to the world, but at this time and for a few years he was able to compose and perform. His last concert would be in December 1808, more than six years later!
Beethoven’s condition changed, becoming more deaf with the passage of time. Robin Wallace produces an enormous amount of indirect evidence in his recent book Hearing Beethoven, to suggest that Beethoven’s hearing loss was partial & gradual rather than complete.
The complex drama included the struggle to simulate a competent musician rather than a deaf one, not just the performances in concert but in society & in his daily life, and the various means employed to compensate. There is a performative aspect to competence. You put on your clothes and go out into the world, and perhaps think nothing of the eyes upon you, noticing whether you tied your shoelaces or have your pants on backwards. We may not experience any pressure to fit in as a normal person, but what if your behaviour signifies some sort of weakness or disability? When one is different, when one might be noticed there is the possibility of being judged. That is exacerbated by the onstage drama when one takes on the persona of virtuoso, who must at the very least signify competence if not expertise and even a superhuman brilliance.
Do you ever get stage-fright? Now imagine that your secret identity could be revealed at any moment by a slip-up.
We are only able to speculate so long after the fact, but there is also the evidence of Beethoven’s own music. Think about the challenges of playing your own piano concerto when you can’t hear. In several places Beethoven boldly begins a movement with a piano solo. That applies to the finale to concertos & 1, 2, 3 and 5, and the first movement of #4. That may seem unorthodox until you realize this is a clever solution for a deaf musician.
When the orchestra joins in –which could be both a visual event as well as an aural one –the soloist can see them all begin to play. And the orchestra would normally match the tempo of the pianist, and therefore no one should notice if the soloist were deaf.
And the deception could continue.
But finally the secret was revealed. The 1994 film Immortal Beloved gives us a fictionalized dramatization of that moment of discovery.
Let’s re-read the beginning of the Testament again.
O my fellow men, who consider me, or describe me as, unfriendly, peevish or even misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. For you do not know the secret reason why I appear to you to be so.
No wonder that he seemed crabby or distant.