Beethoven’s Deafness: For Better or Worse – Or Neither?

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When composers have disabilities, it strongly impacts the way we hear their music, whether it's Robert Schumann and his battle with mental illness, or Frederick Delius, who became paralyzed and blind after he contracted syphilis.

Of course, Ludwig van Beethoven had a significant disability: he lost his hearing in mid-life. This is one of the better-known legends in the annals of music, and a powerful story of overcoming adversity. The recently published book, Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music, sheds new light on this and other cases of disability. As part of Beethoven Awareness Month, we spoke with its author, Joseph Straus, in his office at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he holds the title of Distinguished Professor.

The story that Beethoven overcame his deafness to write great music - is that basically true or do we need to understand more about it?

Well, the relationship between his deafness and the music he wrote is complicated. And the relationship between his deafness and the way people responded to his music is even more complicated. During Beethoven’s life, deafness was thought to have an exclusively negative impact on Beethoven’s work. The perceived consequence was his music was getting weird, getting worse, and becoming strange. This applied particularly to the music written in the last years of his life, his late music.  

Even so, people still identify this as very unique music, right? 

Yes, the late music is still considered a distinct and strange kind of music. But the difference is, instead of his deafness stigmatizing the music, it is understood to valorize the music – to make it better or transcendent in some way. The turning point in Beethoven criticism comes from Wagner. To him, Beethoven’s deafness wasn’t a negative thing, it was a positive thing. It permitted him to enter this strange, transcendent realm where he was able to compose this music, cut off from the conventions that constrained composers who could hear.

In the present day, we have embraced the “valorized” appreciation of Beethoven’s music. Is it dismissive to wonder whether his deafness may have resulted in unintentional results or even hampered his potential? 

The consensus these days is “no” -- that if the deafness had any impact at all, that it was liberatory, freeing him up to move beyond common compositional conventions of his day. And I think that’s probably accurate in some way. He was no longer able to do practical music-making, such as performing as a pianist, and conducting, and life naturally became more self-contained, hermetic, and isolated. That clearly has an impact on the kind of music he wrote. 

Did the specifics of his condition in conjunction with his fame serve to accelerate efforts to provide care for the disabled?

I think probably Beethoven was more riding the wave of a much broader societal interest. Previously, the deaf had been isolated in their communities. As Europe became increasingly urbanized, identifiable populations emerged with certain disabilities, like deafness. Institutions then would gather them together in one place where they could be cared for and studied in various ways. That notion hadn’t particularly existed before.

Setting aside our valorizing or stigmatizing reactions, how did he specifically represent his deafness through the music?

The Eroica symphony is designed to explicitly represent the life of a hero of some kind. That to me seems to be a kind working out of Beethoven’s own response to his perceived issues surrounding his hearing. Many people have also felt there is a relationship between the Eroica Symphony and the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, an auto-biographical statement where he vows to overcome his situation. 

The Eroica Symphony can be seen as a musical working-out of the same issues, in musical terms: the piece begins in a normal way, something happens to disrupt the flow, and then a lot of what happens subsequently in the music has to do with recuperating the musical issues that have been presented earlier.

How did you get into this field?

The older of my two sons, Michael, who is now 20 years old is autistic. I realized I had been thinking about it as a medical pathology: that there was something wrong with him, which we should attempt to cure through various medical interventions.  And then, at some point, I became aware that there was actually this whole new way of thinking about disability: as difference, not as deficit.  

I realized I could think about him and other people with autism as people who are a part of what’s called “neurodiversity.” These are naturally occurring differences in the way people function, and there are lots of really interesting and positive aspects to it.  So that whole world opened up as a result. 

Is the current tale of Beethoven a double-edged sword? In other words, does it put some implicit pressure on the disabled -- that they must attain a level of genius in order to account for their differences?

One of the punishing side-effects of thinking of disability in terms of heroic overcoming is the publicity and promotion of a class of people, known in the disability world, as supercrips. Supercrips are people who despite their disability, seem to have achieved miraculous things: Someone without legs who climbs Mt. Everest, someone without hearing who composes the Ninth Symphony, that kind of thing. 

The problem of that way of framing things is it becomes a kind of impossible standard against which to measure regular old people with regular old disabilities. It can become a punishing standard, a way of saying “Beethoven did it, why can’t you?” Our goal should be naturalized disability, to see it as a naturally occurring aspect of human variation, mental and physical. Instead of promoting supercrips or alternately isolating people in institutions, we need to find ways of welcoming them into daily life and understanding them in relation to their own daily lives.

If Beethoven was one of the greatest classical composers and known to have a disability, why has it taken us so long to take a closer look at these issues?

One thing that has happened in the last 20 years, is the emergence of a new way of thinking about disability: not as a divine affliction and not as a private medical issue. More recently, a third way has emerged, riding the civil-rights movement, known as the disability rights movement. Its academic counterpart is disability studies. In these camps disability is not a medical problem, but it’s a kind of identity, like race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, all of which contribute to a personal identity. These things aren’t taken to be deficits, but differences. This permits a new historical look back at artists, creators, and individuals with disabilities to rethink their lives and creativity in light of this new conceptualization of disability.

Interview has been condensed and edited