The Full Score

Re­search into the com­poser’s ‘con­ver­sa­tion books’ casts light on his hear­ing de­cline

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents -

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

Michael Pa­padopou­los

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

Ca­reer high­light:

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,

Ca­reer high­light:

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.

Fate­ful thoughts: Beethoven walk­ing at Heili­gen­stadt in Aus­tria, 1802

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