“A Glorious Hour”: Helen Keller Describes The Ecstasy of Feeling Beethoven’s Ninth Played on the Radio (1924)

Helen Keller

These days, if you like a piece of music, you might well say that you’re “feel­ing it” — or you might have said it a decade or two ago, any­way. But deaf music-lovers (who, as one may not imme­di­ate­ly assume, exist) do lit­er­al­ly that, feel­ing the actu­al vibra­tions of the sound with not their ears, but the rest of their bod­ies. Not only could the deaf and blind Helen Keller, a pio­neer in so many ways, enjoy music, she could do it over the radio and artic­u­late the expe­ri­ence vivid­ly. We know that thanks to a 1924 piece of cor­re­spon­dence post­ed at Let­ters of Note.

“On the evening of Feb­ru­ary 1st, 1924, the New York Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra played Beethoven’s Ninth Sym­pho­ny at Carnegie Hall in New York,” writes the site’s author Shaun Ush­er. “Thank­ful­ly for those who could­n’t attend, the per­for­mance was broad­cast live on the radio. A cou­ple of days lat­er, the orches­tra received a stun­ning let­ter of thanks from the unlike­li­est of sources: Helen Keller.” The first ecsta­t­ic para­graph of her mis­sive, which you can read whole at the orig­i­nal post, runs as fol­lows:

I have the joy of being able to tell you that, though deaf and blind, I spent a glo­ri­ous hour last night lis­ten­ing over the radio to Beethoven’s “Ninth Sym­pho­ny.” I do not mean to say that I “heard” the music in the sense that oth­er peo­ple heard it; and I do not know whether I can make you under­stand how it was pos­si­ble for me to derive plea­sure from the sym­pho­ny. It was a great sur­prise to myself. I had been read­ing in my mag­a­zine for the blind of the hap­pi­ness that the radio was bring­ing to the sight­less every­where. I was delight­ed to know that the blind had gained a new source of enjoy­ment; but I did not dream that I could have any part in their joy. Last night, when the fam­i­ly was lis­ten­ing to your won­der­ful ren­der­ing of the immor­tal sym­pho­ny some­one sug­gest­ed that I put my hand on the receiv­er and see if I could get any of the vibra­tions. He unscrewed the cap, and I light­ly touched the sen­si­tive diaphragm. What was my amaze­ment to dis­cov­er that I could feel, not only the vibra­tions, but also the impas­sioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music! The inter­twined and inter­min­gling vibra­tions from dif­fer­ent instru­ments enchant­ed me. I could actu­al­ly dis­tin­guish the cor­nets, the roll of the drums, deep-toned vio­las and vio­lins singing in exquis­ite uni­son. How the love­ly speech of the vio­lins flowed and plowed over the deep­est tones of the oth­er instru­ments! When the human voice leaped up trilling from the surge of har­mo­ny, I rec­og­nized them instant­ly as voic­es. I felt the cho­rus grow more exul­tant, more ecsta­t­ic, upcurv­ing swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still. The wom­en’s voic­es seemed an embod­i­ment of all the angel­ic voic­es rush­ing in a har­mo­nious flood of beau­ti­ful and inspir­ing sound. The great cho­rus throbbed against my fin­gers with poignant pause and flow. Then all the instru­ments and voic­es togeth­er burst forth—an ocean of heav­en­ly vibration—and died away like winds when the atom is spent, end­ing in a del­i­cate show­er of sweet notes.

Keller ends the let­ter by empha­siz­ing her desire to “thank Sta­tion WEAF for the joy they are broad­cast­ing in the world,” and since she first enjoyed the sym­pho­ny on the radio, it makes sense, in a way, that we should enjoy her let­ter on the radio. Not long after Let­ters of Note made its post, NPR picked up on the sto­ry, and Week­end Edi­tion’s Scott Simon read an excerpt over a musi­cal back­drop, which you can hear above. And if we have any deaf read­ers who lis­ten to, say, NPR in Keller’s man­ner, let me say how curi­ous I’d be to hear the details of that expe­ri­ence as well.

And deaf, hear­ing, or oth­er­wise, you’ll find much more of this sort of thing in Let­ters of Note’s immac­u­late­ly designed new print col­lec­tion More Let­ters of Note, about which you can find all the details here. It goes on sale on Octo­ber 1.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mark Twain & Helen Keller’s Spe­cial Friend­ship: He Treat­ed Me Not as a Freak, But as a Per­son Deal­ing with Great Dif­fi­cul­ties

Helen Keller Speaks About Her Great­est Regret — Nev­er Mas­ter­ing Speech

Helen Keller & Annie Sul­li­van Appear Togeth­er in Mov­ing 1930 News­reel

Leonard Bern­stein Con­ducts Beethoven’s 9th in a Clas­sic 1979 Per­for­mance

Slavoj Žižek Exam­ines the Per­verse Ide­ol­o­gy of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy

Col­in Mar­shall writes else­where on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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