How Did Beethoven Compose His 9th Symphony After He Went Completely Deaf?

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stream the Com­plete Works of Bach & Beethoven: 250 Free Hours of Music

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

Beethoven’s Ode to Joy Played With 167 Theremins Placed Inside Matryosh­ka Dolls in Japan

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Judith Packard Snow says:

    It seems so sad that human lives are so short that we are able to know/ under­stand so lit­tle of that which is in our uni­verse — or in the rest of the uni­vers­es, how­ev­er many uni­vers­es there may be.
    Winthrop, Mass­a­chu­setts

  • John says:

    Actu­al­ly deaf­ness among musi­cians is not so uncom­mon as one might expect. Beethoven is only the most famous exam­ple. And while he may indeed have been unable to hear with his ears, he almost cer­tain­ly learned what musi­cians afflict­ed by deaf­ness learn–that you can “hear” using dif­fer­ent parts of your body. At least enough so that rhythms and cru­cial musi­cal cues can be felt or sensed. The genius per­cus­sion­ist and com­pos­er Eve­lyn Glen­nie is a liv­ing exam­ple of this. With that and a dri­ven and vivid musi­cal imag­i­na­tion, why would any­one need any mys­te­ri­ous math­e­mat­i­cal intu­ition?

  • Drdon says:

    By the time Beethoven was writ­ing the 9th, putting it down on paper was no dif­fer­ent for him than writ­ing words was for a nov­el­ist. He heard it in his head and sim­ply wrote it down.

  • david holzman says:

    As a con­cert pianist with severe hear­ing loss in both ears (dif­fer­ent for each) I agree com­plete­ly with John. I have had options over the last two decades. First, to use noth­ing ie except my imag­i­na­tion and the slight hear­ing in one ear. Sec­ond to use a hear­ing aid in the right ear with a so-called music pro­gram ( a bit of pitch sen­sor and dual micro­phone) and third–what I am involved with now, cochlear implant in one ear and new hear­ing aid in the oth­er. In many ways my most suc­cess­ful con­certs and record­ings were indeed with no help in either ear. Hear­ing aid cre­at­ed arti­fi­cial­i­ty and slowed me men­tal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly despite the bit of clar­i­ty. My cur­rent state is a work in progress but the aim is nat­ur­al sound which is com­plex but seem­ing­ly doable to a large degree,. That means that the clar­i­ty and mul­ti­ple ear hear­ing is more valu­able than the pure­ly imag­i­nary sounds of the past despite the frus­tra­tions I still feel re arti­fi­cial­i­ty, dual­i­ty and imbal­ance. My imag­i­na­tion, with or with­out devices is still cru­cial, as is patience.

  • William Bergmann says:

    The link to Berstein’s 9th should warn the view­ers that the video ends abrupt­ly before the final 30 sec­onds or so. Ugly and dis­ap­point­ing.

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