You don’t need to know anything at all about classical music, nor have any liking for it even, to be deeply moved by that most famous of symphonies, Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th—“perhaps the most iconic work of the Western musical tradition,” writes The Juilliard Journal in an article about its handwritten score. Commissioned in 1817, the sublime work was only completed in 1824. By that time, its composer was completely and totally deaf. At the first performance, Beethoven did not notice that the massive final choral movement had ended, and one of the musicians had to turn him around to acknowledge the audience.
This may seem, says researcher Natalya St. Clair in the TED-Ed video above, like some “cruel joke,” but it’s the truth. Beethoven was so deaf that some of the most interesting artifacts he left behind are the so-called “conversation books,” kept from 1818 onward to communicate with visitors who had to write down their questions and replies. How then might it have been possible for the composer to create such enduringly thrilling, rapturous works of aural art?
Using the delicate, melancholy “Moonlight Sonata” (which the composer wrote in 1801, when he could still hear), St. Clair attempts to show us how Beethoven used mathematical “patterns hidden beneath the beautiful sounds.” (In the short video below from documentary The Genius of Beethoven, see the onset of Beethoven’s hearing loss in a dramatic reading of his letters.) According to St. Clair’s theory, Beethoven composed by observing “the mathematical relationship between the pitch frequency of different notes,” though he did not write his symphonies in calculus. It’s left rather unclear how the composer’s supposed intuition of mathematics and pitch corresponds with his ability to express such a range of emotions through music.
We can learn more about Beethoven’s deafness and its biological relationship to his compositional style in the short video below with research fellow Edoardo Saccenti and his colleague Age Smilde from the Biosystems Data Analysis Group at Amsterdam’s Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences. By counting the high and low frequencies in Beethoven’s complete string quartets, a task that took Saccenti many weeks, he and his team were able to show how three distinct compositional styles “correspond to stages in the progression of his deafness,” as they write in their paper (which you can download in PDF here).
The progression is unusual. As his condition worsened, Beethoven included fewer and fewer high frequency sounds in his compositions (giving cellists much more to do). By the time we get to 1824–26, “the years of the late string quartets and of complete deafness”—and of the completion of the 9th—the high notes have returned, due in part, Smilde says, to “the balance between an auditory feedback and the inner ear.” Beethoven’s reliance on his “inner ear” made his music “much and much richer.” How? As one violinist in the clip puts it, he was “given more freedom because he was not attached anymore to the physical sound, [he could] just use his imagination.”
For all of the compelling evidence presented here, whether Beethoven’s genius in his painful later years is attributable to his intuition of complex mathematical patterns or to the total free rein of his imaginative inner ear may in fact be undiscoverable. In any case, no amount of rational explanation can explain away our astonishment that the man who wrote the unfailingly powerful, awesomely dynamic “Ode to Joy” finale (conducted above by Leonard Bernstein), couldn’t actually hear any of the music.