Beethoven’s Unmatched Genius

I often refer to artists who inspire me as my “friends.”  Sometimes, I will write about my friend William Faulkner or Toni Morrison or Coltrane or JS Bach.  Of these, I have only met one, told her that instead of an autograph, I would prefer a hug.  She laughed and obliged.  I told her I love her and she gave me a peck on the cheek.  I haven’t been in her presence since.  Without the ability to bend space-time, meeting the others would have presented some major challenges as Faulkner, if memory serves me, died a few years before my birth; Coltrane died shortly before I turned seven and Bach died centuries earlier.  To me, though, they, along with a lot of others, have brought me such joy that I cannot think of a word other than friend to use to describe them.

Ludwig Van Beethoven, though, probably the greatest composer of all time, especially when played by the tragic Canadian agoraphobic genius, Glenn Gould, has brought me such tremendous pleasures, such joy and such images of pure beauty that I would be far too shy to even try to befriend him.  Recordings of his work by Gould, Hogwood, Toscanini, Ozawa and so many others fill shelves in my CD racks.  Each one containing a sonic leap into the lofty genius that we mere mortals can visit but where Beethoven lived his life.

Throughout history, many people with disabilities have made tremendous contributions to the world of the arts.  Perelman, the virtuoso violinist, performs from a wheelchair.  Many blind musicians from JS Bach, who lost his vision later in life, to Andre Bocelli, one of the hottest opera singers today, have delighted audiences with their talents.  Blind blues, rock, jazz and pop stars appear on the charts quite often and many others with many other disabilities have produced many great works of art.

Beethoven, though, stands alone in that he overcame the greatest affliction that a musician could have.  Sometime before the publication of his third symphony, the brilliant and groundbreaking Eroica, he went deaf.  He could not hear much during the composition of the third and even less when he wrote the fourth.  His fifth symphony, a point in musical history that would change all that would follow, was composed in total silence.

In a writing addressed to his brothers, now called by historians, “The Heiligenstadt Testament,” Beethoven describes, more beautifully than I’ve ever read elsewhere, the pain one feels when they lose a sense:
“O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from
childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for
six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face
the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible), born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible
to the diversions of society, I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was
I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf. Ah how could
I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest
perfection, a perfection such as few surely in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed – O I cannot do it, therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when
I would gladly mingle with you, my misfortune is doubly painful because it must lead to my being misunderstood, for me there can be no recreations in society
of my fellows, refined intercourse, mutual exchange of thought, only just as little as the greatest needs command may I mix with society. I must live like
an exile, if I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, a fear that I may be subjected to the danger of letting my condition be observed –
thus it has been during the past year which I spent in the country, commanded by my intelligent physician to spare my hearing as much as possible, in this
almost meeting my natural disposition, although I sometimes ran counter to it yielding to my inclination for society, but what a humiliation when one stood
beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought
me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave
the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence – truly wretched, an excitable body
which a sudden change can throw from the best into the worst state – Patience – it is said that I must now choose for my guide, I have done so, I hope
my determination will remain firm to endure until it please the inexorable parcae to bread the thread, perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not, I am prepared.
Forced already in my 28th year to become a philosopher, O it is not easy, less easy for the artist than for anyone else – Divine One thou lookest into
my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein. O men, when some day you read these words, reflect that
ye did me wrong and let the unfortunate one comfort himself and find one of his kind who despite all obstacles of nature yet did all that was in his power
to be accepted among worthy artists and men. You my brothers Carl and [Johann] as soon as I am dead if Dr. Schmid is still alive ask him in my name to
describe my malady and attach this document to the history of my illness so that so far as possible at least the world may become reconciled with me after
my death.”

The historical record shows a number of other near-great composers who lost their hearing.  All of them ceased their work and more than one fell into deep depression and, later, suicide.  Beethoven, however, pushed forward and, in total silence, would compose the fifth, sixth, seventh and the glorious ninth symphonies, he would compose his later piano sonatas and concertos, still among the most challenging works and he would compose “Fidelio,” his only opera, his beautiful mass and his violin concerto in D, perhaps one of his most well loved compositions.

In no means do I want to compare my work with that of Beethoven.  He brought the world art that will last forever, I made some computer programs.  I do, however, identify strongly with the sentiment he describes in his beautiful testament.  When I, a pretty hot hacker, lost my vision during the ascendancy of the graphical user interface, I would do anything to cover up my affliction.  In social settings, whether having had a drink or not, I would excuse tripping over an obvious obstacle or walking into someone by claiming intoxication.  While working, I would delegate tasks that required good vision to someone else and, with my DOS screen magnified, I would hack away at the low level parts of the programs.  When my vision got so bad that I couldn’t read my text editor, I would actually get drunk and my boss would send me home to sleep it off – the following day, he would welcome me back and I would cope by using a huge font, banging out some pseudo-code and handing it off to an intern to implement.  I got by for a few years this way.  Finally, not knowing about screen readers (those of us with acquired blindness have no knowledge of the system of blindness services) I too found myself hospitalized for depression.

In 1867, Karl Marx, published an essay called, “On Relations of Production,” in which he describes how we, as humans in the industrial age, cease perceiving the world through a holistic view but, rather, we understand our surroundings as filtered through the work we do.  As examples, Marx describes a group of people looking at a house.  The man who makes nails for a living, sees the house as it is held together; a man from the lumberyard sees the boards that the house is built of; the painter sees how the house is painted and, referring to himself as a political economist, Marx explains that he sees the house through the cost in time and labor required to build it.  Jumping forward 120 years, I would probably have seen the house through the CAD/CAM software used to design it or the parts database used by the builder or some other computer related view of a construction project.  

I find this essay by Marx to contain tremendous insight into myself and to others I know who have transcended the notion of living as a “human being” and, my self included, have grown into “human doings.”  My job is my identity and my identity is my job.  Thus, when my relationship to my means of production changed due to the onset of a disability, I felt I had lost my identity.  My life, as I thought I knew it, had come to a quiet end in a pint of ale served at the Cambridge Brewing Company.

My work, then and now, does not rise to greatness nor will people remember it or me for centuries to come.  I just try to make my contribution to my small community and hope some people will find my work valuable.  I wonder, though, what other individuals with tremendous genius and talents would have done had they, like Beethoven, lost the sense most central to their art, craft or profession?

Ludwig Van Beethoven composed his “Ode to Joy,” his ninth symphony entirely in silence.  He had to rely entirely on his memories of the sounds of instruments and voices that he hadn’t heard in many years to compose the most perfect piece of music ever published in the history of western civilization.  Throughout its now long history, the critics have rarely ever found a flaw in the composition and, those who did, had to stretch well into 20th century musical theory that hadn’t been conceived for a hundred years after the ninth premiered in Vienna.  The Ode to Joy so dominated the rest of 19th century composition that few composers, even greats like Franz Schumann, Wagner, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt and so on would hardly dare to stray far from the path set by the ninth.  

Brahms, so impressed with Beethoven tried to live and dress like the great master and composed music so derivative of Beethoven that his first symphony often gets called “the tenth.”  Later in his life, Brahms refused to work on a tenth symphony out of respect for his long dead hero.  Mahler became the first major composer to cross the line of superstition by publishing a tenth symphony but his work sounds even more like Beethoven (with a much larger orchestra) than did the works of Brahms.

Needless to say, the ninth cast a shadow that would last well into the twentieth century.  A few composers, Scriaben, Debussy, Stravinsky, Satie started the move away at the end of the nineteenth and in the early twentieth century.  Their works aroused such controversy that the great early Stravinsky works would cause riots at the Ballet Russe as some listeners would charge forward to better hear this amazing new music while others would storm for the exits unable to understand such radical innovations.  So powerful was the pull of the ninth that music that vectored too far away from its high romantic model sounded so unfamiliar to many listeners that the reactions could turn to violence.

Thus, within the history of music, the ninth stands almost alone.  But what of other geniuses who worked in other media?  What would happen to them if suddenly afflicted with a disability that took away the sense they relied upon most deeply?

Here I must jump into conjecture as I could not find any examples of a genius at Beethoven’s level who lost the sense most important to their work.  Stephen Hawking has certainly lost a lot but his most valuable organ sits inside his head and, with modern technology, he can continue his work.  Bach didn’t lose his hearing but, rather his sight, so he could dictate his compositions to a student.

What would have happened if Leonardo has lost his vision?  Would the Mona Lisa still sit in the most esteemed position at Le Louvre?  Could Leonardo have painted the last Supper entirely from memory?

What if Michelangelo lost his vision?  Could he still have carved his David by touch and memory alone?

Was Beethoven entirely unique in having the genius, tremendous stamina and tenacity to continue composing works that would endure the tests of time, artistic movements, trends and thousands of arrangements from the great to the elevator versions?

So, once again I leave you with an open question.  I hope you’ve enjoyed my literary improvisations on the thoughts of genius and acquired disability.  Have a pleasant weekend.

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

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