BBC Music Magazine
The Full Score
Research into the composer’s ‘conversation books’ casts light on his hearing decline
Beethoven deafness date in doubt; the AAM goes green
Just how deaf was Beethoven? As the 250th-anniversary year of the German composer’s birth gathers pace, a leading music scholar has given this o en debated matter an added twist by revealing evidence that, he says, suggests that Beethoven may have retained some level of hearing right until his final years.
Theodore Albrecht, a professor of musicology at Kent State University,
Ohio, who is currently midway through translating Beethoven’s ‘conversation books’ into English for the first time, says they reveal moments surprisingly late on in his life in which the composer indicated that he was not surrounded entirely by silence. In 1823, for instance, he told another man who was also losing his hearing that ‘Baths and country air could improve many things. Just do not use mechanical devices too early; by abstaining from them, I have fairly preserved my le ear in this way.’
The following year, just three years before his death, Beethoven reported how a musician advised him not to conduct a whole concert for fear of straining his hearing too much.
Beethoven’s conversation books consist of written notes that were passed to him by acquaintances when holding a normal discussion became too di cult. Although he would usually give a spoken response to such notes, giving records of the discourse a one-sided nature, there are instances when he, too, wrote his thoughts down. He started using them in 1818 and, as they cover all manner of subjects, from professional matters to mundane tasks at home, they provide a fascinating insight into his day-to-day life. There are lot of them, too – Professor Albrecht’s work is set to reach 12 volumes.
Beethoven began to lose his hearing when he was in his 20s at the end of the 18th century, and in October 1802 wrote his famous Heiligenstadt Testament outlining the torment that his increasing deafness was causing him. When, or if, he became totally deaf has long been a matter of discussion. While most accounts tend to date it at around 1816, some put it as early as the premiere of the Fi h and Sixth symphonies in 1808. Contrastingly, as Robin Wallace explained in BBC Music Magazine in September 2018, there are also reports of him listening with an ear trumpet to his nephew Karl playing the piano as late as 1820.
Now, reckons Albrecht, we may need to think even later than that. ‘The conversation books are going to be a gamechanger,’ he says. ‘Not only was Beethoven not completely deaf at the premiere of his Ninth Symphony in May 1824, he could hear, although increasingly faintly, for at least two years a erwards, probably through the last premiere that he would supervise, his String Quartet in B flat,
Op. 130, in March 1826.’
When, or if, he became totally deaf has long been a matter of discussion
Conductor and pianist
Born: Career London, highlight: UK Working on Verdi’s La traviata at Opera Holland Park as repetiteur was a huge privilege, not least because it was my first contract with an
established company since leaving Guildhall. Musical hero: Antonio Pappano is a constant source of inspiration for me. Whether conducting opera or simply talking about it, he always commands the listener’s attention with his utter commitment to story-telling.
Dream concert: Having conducted Bach’s
St John Passion last year, it would be a dream to conduct the St Matthew Passion.
Ema Nikolovska Mezzo-soprano
Born: Skopje, Macedonia
My debut recital at Wigmore Hall last year, one of my favourite places in the world, and working with the composers
Kaija Saariaho, Anssi
Karttunen and Daniel Belcher.
Musical hero: Violinist David Oistrakh and baritone Dietrich Fischer-dieskau for their approaches to phrasing and aesthetic, and violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja for her sense of joy and adventure.
Dream colleagues concert: from different A collaboration instrumental with and artistic disciplines, including poetry and dramaturgy. We could create an intimate setting for discussions of the past and present, the traditional and avant-garde.
Gus Nicholson Composer
Born: Australia Melbourne,
Hearing my music performed at the Zurich Film Festival by the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich was a fantastic experience,
but the score for Anne of Green Gables that I am currently working on for the London Children’s Ballet is likely to top that.
Musical hero: Composer Jóhann
Jóhannsson, because he was so prolific across a range of genres and he experimented with blending classical music with electronic and ambient sounds.
Dream concert: Works by Debussy and Strauss, followed by film music by John Williams and Dario Marianelli.