Learning from Ludwig...
On May 14, 2022, a dozen UM students and faculty – together with family and friends – participated in a lively discussion of the life and art of Ludwig Von Beethoven, just before experiencing the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of his Ninth Symphony, conducted by Maestro Jader Bignamini. Led by Professor Christopher Harding, Chair of Piano in the University of Michigan’s Department of Music, Theater & Dance, we learned important practical lessons about how suffering and loss affected the creative life of this great musical genius.
Beethoven experienced early life with an alcoholic father, who was at once absent and severe. He recognized and encouraged his son’s talent, if only to use it as a means of financially sustaining the family. Early on, Beethoven became a revered and commercially successful artist, only to have his promising career derailed by a progressive deafness. At first, he struggled heroically to work through his disability, producing outstanding compositions despite his physical limitations. But by the age of 32, he became completely deaf and began to despair of any future in music. During a medically prescribed recess in the Viennese suburb of Heiligenstadt, he documented his despondency in a private letter which was discovered only after his natural death 24 years later:
“From 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
whose cure will take years or
perhaps be impossible.”
His sense of personal failure and hopelessness became acute when he realized that – unlike his companions - he could hear neither the melodies of a distant flute nor the sounds of a shepherd singing during an excursion to the countryside with friends:
“Such incidents drove me almost to despair. A little more of that and
I would have ended my life
- it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible
to leave the world until
I had brought forth all that
I felt was within me.
So I endured this wretched existence - truly wretched for so susceptible
a body which can be thrown by a
sudden change from the best
condition to the very worst.
Patience, they say, is what I must
now choose for my guide,
and I have done so.”
Thoughts of suicide evaporated by considering that he still had work to do despite the severe limitations imposed by his deafness and isolation. He desired to return the gift of his music to God and to humanity:
“Divine One, thou seest my inmost soul, thou knowest that therein dwells
the love of mankind and the desire to do good.
Oh fellow men, when at some point you read this, consider then that you have done me an injustice;
someone who has had misfortune may console himself to find a similar case to his,
who despite all the limitations of Nature nevertheless did everything
within his powers to become accepted among worthy artists and men.”
Professor Harding pointed out that Beethoven’s greatest source of suffering was in fact a wellspring of creativity, a decisive factor in his growth and maturity as a human being and as an artist. Deafness freed him from the temptation to conform to the musical conventions of his time. He could now attend carefully to the inner voice, to cultivate an interior life and produce original works that reflected the state of his soul. According to Harding, “All true composers are deaf. When you can’t hear, you must listen to your soul.”
Paraphrasing the insights of Plato, Professor Harding asked, “Why is it that music – although it is only pitches and rhythm - so closely mirrors the state of the soul?” The Ancients recognized that music possessed an almost mystical capacity to bring out both the best and the worst in humanity: it could promote an inner harmony or foster spiritual discord. Much like Plato, Aristotle taught that beautiful music should educate. Attending to the flow of a harmonious melody could help us understand and “order” our emotions. It could form our intellect, foster good judgment and help us live out a “noble” sort of leisure. Beautiful music would make us "good" by bringing nature, our reason and the habits of our will into harmony. They both advised parents to teach their children a kind of music that would cultivate those virtues rather than elicit disordered passions. For Beethoven, his experience of suffering and loss moved him to compose forceful, passionate works that reflected his own anguish and willingness to suffer for his art.
links to resources
Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament (1802) from Alexander Thayer. The Life of Beethoven, ed. Henry Krehbiel (New York: Beethoven Association, 1921)
Ode to Joy: A poem by Frederic Schiller, from poetry.com
Maria Popova. Trial, triumph and the art of the possible: The remarkable story behind Beethoven's Ode to Joy. The Marginalian.
The Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies. San Jose State University
Mary B. Schoen-Nazzaro. Plato & Aristotle on the ends of music. Laval théologique et philosophique 34 (3), 1978
Maria Popova. The trans-sensory transcendence of music: Helen Keller's electrifying letter about "hearing" Beethoven's Ode to Joy. The Marginalian.
Stanley J. Oiseth. Beethoven's autopsy revisited: A pathologist sounds a final note. Journal of Medical Biography 25(3), 2017
Christian Reiter & Thomas Prohaska. Beethoven's death: The result of medical malpractice? Wien Med Wochenschr (2021) 171:356–362
George Thomas Ealy. Of ear trumpets and a resonance plate: Early hearing aids and Beethoven's hearing perception. 19th Century Music XVII/3, Spring 1994.
Conor Farrington. Beyond the Ode to Joy? The politics of the European Anthem. Political Quarterly 90 (3), 2019
Dave Murphy. Beethoven skull fragments resurface! San Francisco Chronicle, November 18, 2005
Yasmin Ali. Beethoven's Dream (Winner of the Young Scientist Essay Competition) Nature, November 4, 2019