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Ludwig Van Beethoven and deafness. Deaf musical genius. Triumph of greatness of spirit over adversity.

Updated on May 14, 2012


Ludwig Van Beethoven and his great trial.

Ludwig Van Beethoven. How he triumphed over his deafness, and inspired us all.

A great performance of some truly great music.

Beethoven, and the village that brought him peace.

The beautiful village of Heiligenstadt.
The beautiful village of Heiligenstadt.

Ludwig Van Beethoven and his great trial.

Every one of us has to suffer a bit in this life, whether it is the grazed knee suffered by the overeager toddler, or the more profound suffering of the recently bereaved. It may be the life changing effects of a tragic accident, or the debilitating trauma of a chronic illness. But to each of us, who have ever had to endure the downsides of being alive, the account I am about to relate here, can only serve to bring hope and comfort.

"O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible), born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf. Ah how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection, a perfection such as few surely in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed - O I cannot do it, therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would gladly mingle with you, my misfortune is doubly painful because it must lead to my being misunderstood, for me there can be no recreations in society of my fellows, refined intercourse, mutual exchange of thought, only just as little as the greatest needs command may I mix with society. I must live like an exile, if I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, a fear that I may be subjected to the danger of letting my condition be observed".

The above words are part of the Heiligenstadt Testament, one of the most moving documents about the effects of disability ever penned.

They were written by the German composer Ludwig Van Beethoven, in the form of a letter to his brothers. The year was 1802, and it was just around the time when he finally realised that the deafness that was closing in around him was incurable.

He had been advised to take a rest in the beautiful village of Heiligenstadt. Feelings of depression amounting almost to despair were encompassing his very being.

To have the genius that he had for composing the most profound and beautiful music ever produced, and to be faced with the realisation that his hearing was going; and he could never expect to experience the full effect of his great works, must have been torture itself.

Ludwig Van Beethoven. How he triumphed over his deafness, and inspired us all.

For anyone, to be faced with the loss of a vital function, whether it be blindness, deafness, or the sudden, and irrevocable, paralysis that can be the lot of the victim of an accident, the feelings of deep despair, and the belief that life is over now, must be almost overwhelming.

I am very fortunate to have never experienced any of these things myself, other than a regrettable tendency to fatness since my middle years. This is due to too long time spent in front of a computer, and an over fondness for cakes and ice cream. Entirely self-afflicted.

There are those people who have illnesses, that you would think would leave them almost totally incapable of even contemplating living useful lives; yet they put us all to shame by contributing greatly to the welfare of their fellow humans. Such a one is Professor Steven Hawking, and such another one was Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Our Ludwig did not throw in the towel in 1802. He got over his depression, and went on to write some truly awe inspiring music in the twenty five years of life left to him.

He had the legs cut off his pianos, so he could lie on the ground, and feel the vibrations of the sounds that he was unable to hear.

In his last ten years he was profoundly deaf, which means that he never got to hear the music of his later symphonies, including the sublime beauties of his ninth symphony.

One of the most moving accounts that has come down to us is about the first performance of this symphony. Beethoven was incapable of conducting by this time, but he was on the stage, giving the beat to the actual conductor.

When the final notes, that seem to transport the listener on orchestral and choral wings, straight to the Dwelling Place of God, had sounded, the audience erupted in the most tumultuous applause, but the composer, who had his back turned was totally unaware of this. He had to be gently turned around by one of the soloists to see the clapping.

The great Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, (The one with the famous four note opening that has been likened to "fate knocking on the door") ends with one of the most joyous and uplifting movements in all classical music. This represents the spirit triumphing over adversity. To understand what I mean, you really do need to listen to the whole work. It will more than repay you to do so.

May the spirit of Ludwig Van Beethoven give strength to all of us who have to struggle with life's adversities and heartaches.

The version I am posting is conducted by one of my other all-time greats of classical music, Arturo Toscanini. I would love to have seen one of his performances.

I am including a video of the final movement. Remember, as you marvel at its sheer uplifting power, that it was written by a man who was well on his way towards profound deafness.

A great performance of some truly great music.


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    • christopheranton profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      There are loads of people like that, Wesman, who have amazing talents, but dont get encouraged.

      I think if some kid is good at something, and enjoys doing it, the parents and teachers should encourage them.

      It's no use saying "that sort of thing is not for the likes of you".

      That kind of attitude stinks.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      7 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Yes that one was a shoker for certain - when I first learned of it years ago. It's amazing the prodigious gifts that some of us have that other's can't begin to grasp the smallest parts of.

      So far as music is concerned and hearing, I've got terrific ears, and can hear a slightly foul note every time. At the same time, I can not seem to learn a piece of music by ear - ever. My brother can hear some bit of something on a radio, and "find it" on any instrument. I've a neighbor who can not only "find" bits and pieces, but often a whole piece . . . .by ear.

      If I want to learn some music though - I require the piece in front of me on paper, but I know when my instrument is even the slightest tiny bit out of tune.

      There's no end to the amazing gifts some humans have - I wonder how many of them are suppressed by society that tells them, "you can't do that - you're mentally ill," or "you can't do that, it's not proper."

    • christopheranton profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      It really suited the weightlessness.

    • Merlin Fraser profile image

      Merlin Fraser 

      7 years ago from Cotswold Hills

      I remember hearing the Blue Danube as part of the film score of 2001 a Sapce Odyssey way back in the 60's first time in souround sound magic !

    • christopheranton profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Thanks for visiting Merlin.

      I guess "The Blue Danube" and "William Tell" were my first experiences.

    • Merlin Fraser profile image

      Merlin Fraser 

      7 years ago from Cotswold Hills

      Hi Christopher,

      I think I must be luckier than most, my introduction to classical music came when I was still in primary school, every morning the Head would play a piece from his collection.

      If memory serves the first one I remember was Morning from Peer Gynt by Grieg.

      Later in secondary school a teacher took six of us to a concert to hear Beethoven's fifth piano concerto the 'Emperor.' It cost ten shillings, a small fortune back in the 50's and I had to do odd jobs for a month to pay it off but I have never had such value for money since.

      A great tribute to a great man.

    • christopheranton profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Hi drbj.

      The bit about the piano legs came from a documentary made in 1970, on the two hundredth aniversary of his birth. That year was the first time I really started to get into classical music in a big way, and Beethoven was always one of my favourites.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      7 years ago from south Florida

      Ludwig must be smiling in Heaven, christopher, as he reads this loving and fascinating tribute to his perserverance and persistence in composing brilliant music even after he was profoundly deaf.

      Thanks for sharing that vignette of sawing off the piano legs - that bit was new to me. Thanks for this beauty of a hub. Bravo. Rated up.

    • christopheranton profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Nell Thanks for your kind words. We could all learn from him.

      Hi Keith, although Beethoven was a greater musician than "The Spicegirls", he would have looked like a "right dork" in union jack hotpants. It would have been "one nil" to "Scary, Baby, etc then.

      You are right there jtyler. His training must have been a great help. I expect he can hear all his music now anyway.

    • jtyler profile image


      7 years ago

      I recently learned about this guy, but I didn't know this much about him. Part of the reason he was so good after he was deaf was because he could hear the music in his head before writing it down. He often only had one draft, the draft, for his pieces of music. I guess you could say that practice and dedication makes perfect as well.

    • attemptedhumour profile image


      7 years ago from Australia

      You know i prefer the spice girls to Beethoven so i must be deaf too. I grew up being English as well and that's worse than many ailments, worse even than being irish.

      My wife likes classical music and luckily classical men. I only like a bit of classical music to be honest, but i do love the history and intrigue of these great composers. They are geniuses in the true sense of the word. To think that Ludwig continued to compose these masterpieces when deaf means that maybe you could too. So get to it and no biscuits as the crumbs get between the piano keys, although you might be good at composing crummy symphonies.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      7 years ago from England

      Hi, amazing, I knew of course that he was deaf but never knew the story behind it, feeling the vibrations by laying on the floor wow! what an incredible man, and I loved the video too! rated up! cheers nell


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