Ludwig van Beethoven scholars for more than a century have tried to analyze his music and life through yellowing manuscripts, conversation books, diaries and articles, looking for clues to answer a fundamental mystery: How could one of the world’s greatest composers create such monumental music while deaf in his middle and later years?
Baylor University musicology professor Robin Wallace found insights closer to home: the progressing deafness of his late wife Barbara, who suddenly began to lose her hearing and had to learn to function in a hearing world through the help of devices and other accommodations.
The Beethoven scholar captures this journey and his hands-on, even ears-on, research in his new book “Hearing Beethoven: A Story Of Musical Loss And Discovery,” which marshals considerable evidence to disprove the popular myth that the deaf Beethoven composed primarily in his head, later writing down the results.
An early Beethoven biographer copied that from a similar anecdote about Mozart, Wallace said.
“Both of those stories are completely false,” he said.
Years of studying Beethoven manuscripts and sketch books that were always with the composer convinced Wallace that Beethoven primarily composed on paper, scribbling down themes and motifs in sketches that he would later revisit and lift for other compositions. Sometimes Beethoven wrote down the letters of tones, too impatient to place notes on a staff. At other times, his pen strokes on notes mirror the rhythm of a passage.
“I concluded the messier (the writing), the more freely and spontaneously the ideas were flowing,” he said.
Beethoven’s loss of hearing started in his late 20s. From the early 1800s on, he was largely deaf and created the bulk of his work unable to hear it fully, if at all. He died in 1827.
Wallace, 62, gained a first-hand understanding of how Beethoven might have coped with that through the experience of his first wife, Barbara. Radiation treatments for a brain tumor damaged her hearing when she was in her 20s, but it took a change for the worse in 2000 when she suddenly lost the hearing in her right ear.
Three years later, her left ear followed suit, on a drive from North Carolina to Waco, where Wallace had just accepted a position in Baylor’s School of Music. That left the music-loving Barbara totally deaf, unable to hear concerts she once attended with her husband, or sing in the church choir or have conversations with their children.
“She was completely cut off from the world and told me the first six months were like being in solitary confinement,” Wallace said. “It was cumbersome and awkward.”
She later received a cochlear implant in her left ear, which restored some hearing but forced her to relearn fundamental hearing skills. The sounds she heard through a “pocket talker” or through the implant had to be matched to what the sounds meant, whether words or noises around her, Wallace said.
Wallace said a break-through moment came when listening to her car radio and out of the general buzz of Top 40 radio, she recognized a phrase and rhythm. Suddenly, she understood what she was hearing: the Beatles’ song “Eight Days A Week.” A little bit of recognition unlocked a larger understanding.
Beethoven, Wallace realized, may have gone through a similar process as his hearing disappeared, connecting what he heard through a hearing trumpet, an early hearing assistance device, or felt through his piano keyboard to their corresponding words and sound.
Barbara died in 2011 from complications from a stroke. Wallace remarried in 2014, and his wife Meg, an experienced editor, helped him produce “Hearing Beethoven.”
During a visit to Beethoven’s birthplace and adjoining museum and archive in Bonn, Germany, Wallace saw the hearing devices Beethoven had used. With permission, the Baylor scholar tried Beethoven’s hearing trumpets and found them surprisingly helpful by amplifying volume and filtering out background noise.
“They were a first-rate hearing aid,” he said. “The only downside is that you had to hold them in place.”
Wallace also became involved in The Hearing Machine project at the Orpheus Institute in Ghent, Belgium, in which a replica of Beethoven’s Broadwood piano, a heavier English piano that the composer used later in his career, was fitted with a metal shell that reflected the sound back at the player.
Both the piano and the shell, imagined from descriptions of a “hearing machine” that has not survived, proved revelations for Wallace. When he played the piano, he realized its keyboard and body carried sound vibrations much more than lighter, Viennese-built pianos that Beethoven used. With the shell fitted on top, a performer would hear more volume and higher pitches otherwise lost without the reflection.
“Hearing Beethoven” sheds light on how the famous composer might have adjusted his writing as his deafness progressed. That, in turn, expands a listener’s understanding and appreciation, a fundamental premise behind Wallace’s textbook for his “Introduction To Music” students, “Take Note: An Introduction To Music Through Active Listening.”
“Understanding … is profoundly relevant to how we listen to music,” Wallace said.