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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  • 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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