The secret, it appears, was in the touch. The Broadwood was constructed so the sounding board connected directly to the instrument’s outer frame, conveying powerful vibrations where Beethoven needed them most: at the keyboard and through the floor at his feet.
With the hearing machine in place to amplify the sound and vibrations even further, the instrument became a physical extension of his body. He could feel its resonance to his core. Given this, it seems unlikely that the loud dynamics in Beethoven’s music were a response to deafness, as is often suggested. It seems even less likely when you also consider that in his thirties Beethoven suffered from loudness recruitment.
This condition, in which some sounds register as much louder than they actually are, is familiar to people with hearing loss. As a result, Beethoven plugged his ears with cotton to make playing the piano bearable. So if anything, loudness recruitment would have made loud music painful for him to listen to.
And it was the instruments at his disposal, rather than the frequencies he could or couldn’t hear, which affected the pitch range of Beethoven’s music. The mighty Hammerklavier Sonata (1818) provides a striking example of this. The first three movements were written for a six-octave Viennese piano, extending from the F two and a half octaves below middle C to the F three and half octaves above. Beethoven used this full range in the Hammerklavier.
But just before he began the final movement, he received the Broadwood. The range of the music shifted to fit the new instrument’s lower six-octave range, which instead extended to the Cs three octaves either side of middle C. So the entire sonata could not be played on either of the instruments Beethoven had available while he was writing it. A more modern piano would be needed for that.
Despite the remarkable lengths Beethoven went to in order to feel the music, there was a period during which he composed in near total deafness. It is probably safe to say that it includes only the relatively small number of late works from about 1815. That includes public works like Symphony No. 9 and the Missa Solemnis, but is dominated by the intimate last five string quartets and last five piano sonatas. These have long been considered among his most challenging and rewarding works.
From the outset they provoked extraordinary responses. In the five years after its premiere in 1824, more was written about the Ninth Symphony than had been written about any of his previous compositions. Unprecedented effort was put into trying to understand his music. Many of the quartets and sonatas received unusually extensive reviews that helped readers come to terms with compositions many of them found baffling.
Those reviews have helped to establish some of the very beliefs now in question. In particular, Joseph Fröhlich’s long review of the Ninth, published in 1828, the year after Beethoven died, suggested for the first time that the tragedy-joy narrative of the symphony was Beethoven’s musical autobiography.
It showed that Beethoven had triumphed over deafness. Works that follow a similar outline (like the Fifth Symphony), or that glorify heroism (the Eroica), were understood in the same way, even though Beethoven wrote those two pieces when he could still hear music quite well. It’s even suggested that the works in which Beethoven does not present this titanic battle are less important.
The most significant thing to be learned from studying the history of Beethoven’s deafness, however, may be that his music has a much broader emotional range than he is often given credit for. His oeuvre includes the Pastoral Symphony with its relaxed evocations of the countryside; beautiful and lyrical songs from the cycle An die ferne Geliebte, and delightful and impish small piano pieces like the late Bagatelles, most of which Beethoven wrote when he was using the Broadwood and the hearing machine.
These works, written in successive decades as his deafness grew more advanced, show a composer whose technique and emotional range continually broadened even as his hearing failed. Beethoven did not triumph over deafness. He learned to work with it and around it.
Words by Robin Wallace, author of 'Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss and Discovery. This article first appeared in the September 2018 issue of BBC Music Magazine.
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