Thursday, June 18, 2020

Beethoven's Latter Years

By Nancy J. Farrier


Beethoven Sketch
by Emil Eugen Sachse
Wikimedia Commons
We are all familiar with the name Ludwig Van Beethoven and the incredible music he composed. Young musicians learn pieces like Für Elise as part of their repertoire. There is much to learn about Beethoven’s life and his ability, but I want to focus more on what happened to him in his later life. 

Most of us realize Beethoven went deaf but still composed complicated symphonies. How could he do that? How do you put together music when you can't hear what you are doing? Let’s take a brief look at his early years and then see how Beethoven composed in his later years.



Ludwig Van Beethoven, born in 1770 in Germany, is considered a musical genius of his day. At a very young age, Beethoven’s father used force to make him study music. It is reported Beethoven had to stand on a stool to reach the keys so he could play. Neighbors often heard him weeping due to his father harsh tactics. 

Beethoven struggled with school work that did not have to do with music—reading and math. Yet he composed his first musical piece at age twelve. He
Für Elise
Wikimedia Commons
went on to become the success we know, playing for royalty and being sought after for his music.

By the time he turned 30, Beethoven wrote to a friend, saying that he’d been plagued for some time by buzzing in his ears and his hearing was growing weaker. He withdrew from public life, having difficulty conversing with people because he couldn’t hear what they were saying. If he went to an orchestra performance, he had to sit very close to hear the music. Even then he couldn’t hear the upper register notes. 

Once a popular performer, people stopped asking Beethoven to play for them. He would pound so hard on the keys to hear the notes that the instrument would end up damaged. No one wanted their valuable instrument ruined.

Beethoven's 9th Symphony Performance
by Bettmann, Wikimedia Commons
How did he continue to compose as he lost his hearing? Beethoven tried many remedies, but none helped him to hear. For decades he’d been composing and playing music. He knew the range of notes and the understood the vibrations or resonance of each note. When he composed at his piano, he would put a pipe or pencil in his mouth and touch the end to the soundboard. He could then “hear” the vibration through the pencil and know what the note sounded like. (I've heard this compared to the bone conduction headphones used today.)

Many of the pieces he is famous for were written during his deaf period. Although he tended toward notes in the lower range where his earlier work was in a higher range, his music still resonated with his audience then and still does today.

An interesting note that toward the end of his life, the higher register notes returned. Some say this is because he “heard” the music in his imagination and drew from that for his composition. 
Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata

What famous works did Beethoven compose as he lost his hearing? The Moonlight Sonata was composed early in the stages of his hearing loss. This work is so beautiful and still a loved piece. His final piece, written when he was completely deaf, is considered by many to be his crowning achievement—Ode to Joy: The 9th Symphony.  

It’s hard to imagine the gift and determination it took to overcome such a loss as his hearing. For a musician, listening to the play of notes and the weaving of a melody among the complimentary sounds would be devastating. I love that Beethoven overcame this tragic part of his life and kept on using his gift despite the odds.

What piece of Beethoven’s is your favorite? Both Für Elise and the Moonlight Sonata are my favorites. What are your thoughts of Beethoven’s accomplishments? 

Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website: nancyjfarrier.com.

6 comments:

  1. A wonderful post, Nancy. Beethoven is one of my favorite composers with Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata my favorites as well. I play the piano, and I get great joy from playing those pieces.

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    1. Thank you, Linda. How wonderful to be able to play these pieces.

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  2. I am musically illiterate. But a nice post!

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    1. Thank you, Connie. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

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  3. Hi Nancy! I tend to like Beethoven's later works the best, My favorite symphony is the 7th - it just sounds so happy. A few years ago I visited the center for Beethoven studies located at San Jose State University, which has the largest collection of Beethoven materials outside of Europe. It even has a lock of his hair. Thanks for posting!

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    1. Wow, Linda, I didn’t know about that center. What fun to visit. Thank you for commenting.

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