THE MOST FAMOUS HEARING IMPAIRED BEING IN 300 YEARS (AS FAR AS WE KNOW)
Ludwig van Beethoven portrayed above in a painting by the 26 year old painter Mähler which he began in 1804 and completed in 1805. Mähler was 8 years younger than Beethoven and a great admirer. He was also an amateur musician and accompanied Beethoven to a rehearsal of Leonore ( Fidelio) during 1805 early in the evolution of that work. Apparently Mähler did 4 portaits of Beethoven all of which were untitled. Varying reports suggest that this one was a favorite of Beethoven’s.
How many of us hold in our awareness, when considering Beethoven’s art, while listening to it or preparing to perform it that from 1796 he was plagued with buzzing and ringing sounds and hearing loss began two years later. From then on, he was living with encroaching hearing impairment.
In an 1801 letter to Franz Gerhard Wegeler he shared his reality. ..."My hearing has grown steadily worse over the last three years.." - "...For two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people "I am deaf". If I belonged to any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a frightful state..." Beethoven was 31 at this time. His first symphony had been premiered the year before, and he was working on the 2nd symphony which would be premiered in April of 1803.
How many of us have had such afflictions, issues with our senses, issues with our health in general and other kinds of dis-ease? How do we react to it emotionally. Artists, performers, of all kinds have had such events in their lives. The realization of being sentenced to upcoming tragedy is a daily experience for some, as it was for Beethoven. Do you remember the plights of Christopher Reeve? Arguably at the height of his fame, while riding a horse in a jumping competition he fell off and was paralyzed for the rest of his life. Again, living with the reality.
We have, of course, Christopher's actions and words, film clips and sound recordings it's all very well documented how he carried himself and how he lived until he passed in 2004. In Beethoven's experience we do have some letters and his notebooks which are mostly one way, but, we also have his music.
Now, before we experience the excerpt, I ask you this. What must one feel, have within, in order to face all of this. In order not to yield to the understandably emotionally debilitating reality of such life events? TRUST.
Self-trust, is a very important ingredient to our well being and one which, is increasingly difficult for many to cultivate. I have found many of the young people that audition for me, lacking in self trust. I find many of the elderly, regardless of gender or even economic situation, lacking in trust of self. Instead, they yield to greater authorities, most of which they find on television. Trust of self, is a very personal process, one that many creatives artists and other performers, understand. It is a process that takes place over a life time of experiences and focus. I personally have had many bouts with doubt - the worst of such things of course are those doubts which have to do with performing and that which takes place around one's "interpretation" of the masterpieces conductors are often tasked to bring to life. Once, in a fit of frustration while studying Beethoven's 7th Symphony, I looked at the above portrait, a copy of which I still own, and blurted out to the great master. "Ok, look, it's simple either you tell me what you want or I'm just going to do what I believe to be correct". Yes, it's a funny moment now, but, the younger part of myself was absolutely serious. The frustration and self doubt very evident as I questioned everything I did. How does one face the legend and the fact of Beethoven, the greatness of his music, the demands of the required insight and the realities of today's orchestral costs pushing one to work in the blink of an eye with even the most well intentioned ensembles. Years of study, in all kinds of musical fields of course, conducting at every opportunity to practice the craft and, the foundation of all of this has to be a constantly developing self trust. It comes, with time.
What is it that saw Beethoven through his hardest most difficult moments? We often think of anyone who is an icon as having it easy, on top of the world. But imagine for one moment you're Beethoven, and you face each and every day the great reality of your most precious sense diminishing, the foundation of your art, your hearing, disappearing one day at a time. Noises, ringing in the ears, further and further afield of what you could do when younger. HOW in the world can you withstand this? Deal with it? Survive it? My dear friend Joseph Russo, as does almost every other musician that I know, will tell you that all of life's problems, even those that have no real solution, can be ameliorated simply by immersing one's SELF in the master's music. We know what we feel when we listen to Beethoven's 5th, or when we perform in it or conduct it, but, truly what do you imagine Beethoven's experience was/is when he was writing it? Musicologists would scoff at this idea, many a professor of music or fellow conductor/composers would find themselves bringing up logical reasons why a composer is not necessarily reflecting his own life. And, I do understand, yet in this case, it's extremely clear to me that he was expressing his daily struggles and while in the process of writing, hearing within, banging it out on his piano forte, receiving the balm that we all do when we are activated by this great music.
In 2009 I had the great pleasure of returning to Brazil, after a 16 year absence to conduct the Orchestra do Teatro Alberto Marinhão, the local orchestra for the city of Natal and the 115 year old theatre. It was another one of my very interesting experiences, fraught with all kinds of cinematic events, including Federal Police (no kidding). In the interlude between the stage change to perform Beethoven's 5th I spoke to the audience. The essence of that talk was simple: "...we complain about our lives, we complain about the local, state and national governments, we complain about the American government and often times with reason but, what is the message, truly. Why do we listen to Beethoven a German composer from across the sea, what does he have to do with us. Beethoven had his own struggles just as all of us do, Beethoven had to face the fact that he was going deaf. This is not you, or me, or some johnny come lately, it's Beethoven. BEETHOVEN going deaf?????? What we are here for is to understand something, we are here to understand that his response, in the end, to this terrible affliction was a gesture of defiance, for in the face of all of this he writes this symphony which as we approach the last movement we find ourselves in the midst of the most powerful statement "I AM HERE, I WILL SUCCEED!"
Listen to it for yourself and then ponder for a moment what I'm suggesting here. The reason this has spoken and will continue to speak to all who care to connect with its eternal power is that it's a pure energetic reality of intention, faith and self-trust. Without which, he certainly would have collapsed. Quoting from the same letter as I did above here are his own words"... Of course, I am resolved to rise above every obstacle, but how will it be possible? …” Simple by striving and struggling to write consistently and throughout the rest of his life, music like this. Here is an excerpt from Beethoven’s 5th, the section from the 3rd to the 4th movement. I have chosen this for in the 4th movement we hear his response to his afflictions.
You can hear the conflicting inner struggle, the call to greatness stirred by the deep galactic ability to feel and transmit emotion and the human experience, his experience, into the music. You can hear the struggle the fight being overpowered by the divine in Beethoven, the same divine that exists in all of us. And, THIS is where it all becomes clear.
The universality of Beethoven is, in the end, rather simple. I speak now of Beethoven the individual, NOT THE GOD, NOT THE TEXT BOOK BEETHOVEN, the real flesh and blood Beethoven, the Beethoven who constantly complains of stomach ailments…here read another excerpt from another letter dated June 29th, 1801…
"The cause of this (his hearing impairment) must be the condition of my belly which as you know has always been wretched and has been getting worse, since I am always troubled with diarrhea, which causes extraordinary weakness. Frank wanted to tone up my body by tonic medicines and restore my hearing with almond oil, but prosit, nothing happened, my hearing grew worse and worse, my bowels remained as they had been. This lasted until the autumn of last year and I was often in despair.
Then came a medical ass who advised me to take cold baths for my health;
A more sensible one advised the usual lukewarm Danube bath. That worked wonders, my belly improved, but my deafness remained and became even worse.
This last winter I was really miserable, since I had frightful attacks of colic and again fell back into my previous condition. Thus I remained until about four weeks ago, when I went to Vering, thinking that my condition demanded a surgeon, and besides I had great confidence in him.
He succeeded almost wholly in stopping the awful diarrhea. He prescribed the lukewarm Danube bath, into which each time I had to pour a little bottle of strengthening stuff. He gave me no medicine of any kind until about four days ago when he prescribed pills for my stomach and a kind of herb for my ear. Since then I can say I am feeling stronger and better, except that my ears sing and buzz constantly, day and night".
This is the Beethoven, the suffering Beethoven, the human man, the being the person who rises above all, in spite of all of this constant chronic suffering. CAN YOU IMAGINE IT? This is why we all react so powerfully to his music, this is why we bond with it, this is why it can be and is life changing because it CHANGED his life. It supported him through so much, and there was more than just the realities of his maladies, and deafness there were also maladies of the heart (romantic) as well. And, as some of us know, these can be as debilitating as any physical ailments.
Trusting my SELF has allowed me to stay alive, the realities of my life have not been usual, nor have they been easy. I am quite blessed with the knowledge that I have much and am constantly being given more by life. And, yet, it would seem to many that I am the one of the down trodden. My life has had many challenges and I have followed the path of letting go of material issues more and more as a choice, in order to live my life on my own terms. And, when it comes to conducting, composing even interpersonal relationships I have gone through the graduate school and the post graduate school of life which allows me to understand that TRUST in One’s Spontaneity is the path for Artistic expression as well as life.
Is it any wonder that I owe Beethoven my life? That recognition of myself in him. Not of me the composer, nor conductor, me the human, the fragile being who still VOWS to rise above at all costs. His being is imprinted in his music and it demonstrates that if we seek and open to all that we are we too can attain our own personal victories and prevail at all costs.
Thank you all for joining me here. Thomas