When things are bad, and the problems of life seem almost insurmountable, I think of Beethoven, the great composer who was a mere twenty-eight when he started going deaf.
The siren call was tinnitus. A ghastly invasive white noise with its intolerable ringing and weird high-pitched squeals that constantly played in his ears. As these sounds increased, his hearing diminished, until six years later he was almost profoundly deaf. Oddly, Beethoven blamed his condition on a quarrel with a singer.
By 1800, he required the attention of doctors who poked, prodded, burnt tapers in his ears, and suggested he take some time away in the quiet of the country to soothe his hearing.
For someone whose whole life centred around the creation of music, the possibility of becoming deaf tortured Beethoven. How would he compose? How would he even know what he was composing? What was the point? His world irised down to a pinhole.
Taking his doctor’s advice, Beethoven moved to the country. He rented an apartment in Heiligenstadt, then an independent municipality now the 19th district of Vienna. The peace of the countryside offered no respite. When he watched the birds fly and flutter and build their nests, he realised he could not hear them sing. His worst fears were tangible and he feared there was no point to going on.
Sometime between the months of April and October 1802, Beethoven wrote what he intended as a final letter to his brothers Carl and Johann. He explained the depth of his “wretched existence” and his terrible sense of isolation and despair.
For my brothers Carl and [Johann] Beethoven
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.
At the same time I declare you two to be the heirs to my small fortune (if so it can be called), divide it fairly, bear with and help each other, what injury you have done me you know was long ago forgiven. to you brother Carl I give special thanks for the attachment you have displayed towards me of late. It is my wish that your lives be better and freer from care than I have had, recommend virtue to your children, it alone can give happiness, not money, I speak from experience, it was virtue that upheld me in misery, to it next to my art I owe the fact that I did not end my life by suicide.
Farewell and love each other – I thank all my friends, particularly Prince Lichnowsky and Professor Schmid – I desire that the instruments from Prince L. be preserved by one of you but let no quarrel result from this, so soon as they can serve you better purpose sell them, how glad will I be if I can still be helpful to you in my grave – with joy I hasten towards death – if it comes before I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities it will still come too early for me despite my hard fate and I shall probably wish it had come later – but even then I am satisfied, will it not free me from my state of endless suffering? Come when thou will I shall meet thee bravely. – Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead, I deserve this of you in having often in life thought of you how to make you happy, be so –
Ludwig van Beethoven
October 6th, 1802
For my brothers Carl and [Johann]
to be read and executed after my death.
Heiligenstadt, October 10, 1802, thus do I take my farewell of thee – and indeed sadly – yes that beloved hope – which I brought with me when I came here to be cured at least in a degree – I must wholly abandon, as the leaves of autumn fall and are withered so hope has been blighted, almost as I came – I go away – even the high courage – which often inspired me in the beautiful days of summer – has disappeared – O Providence – grant me at least but one day of pure joy – it is so long since real joy echoed in my heart – O when – O when, O Divine One – shall I find it again in the temple of nature and of men – Never? no – O that would be too hard.
When Beethoven finished his letter, he read it, folded it up, sealed it, and placed away it in a drawer where it remained until after his death in 1827. Something had changed. Between the moment of putting the pen down and thinking about what he had written, Beethoven had decided to carry on with determination and courage. To grapple with fate and not allow infirmity to lessen his ambition. Beethoven knew he was born to compose music and, as he saw it, if it was God’s will that he was deaf then so it goes. The best of life comes from adversity, and his loss of hearing gave Beethoven an ardour to work, to create, to live his life for one more day of pure joy.
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