Ludwig van Beethoven: music to the test of deafness

For people with disabilities, the famous composer Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) can be seen as a symbol of willingness and resilience: the "last representative of classicism" kept composing classical music -and some of his most recognized works- even though he was deaf. His disability did not prevent him from composing incredible pieces; when he composed the “Ode to Joy” (later known as the anthem of the European Union), he was already hearing-impaired.  

With his masterpieces of rare power, this militant for freedom, human rights and social progress has marked the history of music like few others. Let’s look back on this artist with a willingness like no other...


Born in Bonn in 1770, Ludwig Van Beethoven was the son of Johann Van Beethoven, a musician and a rather tyrannical father. The eldest quickly realized his son's predispositions and wanted to take a financial advantage of them. Remembering Mozart, who had impressed Austria a few decades earlier, the father wanted to make his son a young prodigy and taught him music from the age of five. He took him on various musical tours at a very early age, but they were not quite successful.

From a relatively modest background, Ludwig van Beethoven left school at the age of 11 at the end of elementary school. Later, he resumed his studies to fill in what he considered to be cultural gaps. He began to earn a living through music: at the age of fourteen, he was already assistant organist at the court of the new elector (the archbishop of Cologne)! All his life, this question will remain central: how to be free of want? How could his art make him independent? As an artist, he relied on the rents rich aristocrats gave him. The handicap made the financial problem all the more difficult for him. Deaf, many doors closed to him in the musical world where he had found his vocation. 

It was his encounters with others that led him to his first successes as a pianist.  Elector Max-Franz, and then the Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, took him under their wings. Thanks to his connections, he made his first trip to Vienna in 1787 where he met Mozart, who is said to have said of him: "Pay attention to this one, he will make the world talk about him". What an honor for the young man, who was only 17 years old at that time! In 1792, he finally left to study music in Vienna with Haydn, another major Austrian composer. A few years later, and thanks to his various teachers, he began to experience his first great successes as a virtuoso pianist. From 1795 on, he also began to compose piano sonatas... before gradually being acclaimed by the entire Viennese population and establishing himself as a composer.  


However, Beethoven's professional success, which led to his recognition, was marred by personal difficulties. 

The first signs of deafness appeared when he was barely twenty years old: it would end up being total in 1820. In addition, he was affected by various illnesses, including certainly Paget's disease which cause deformities of the bones. As the years went by, this disease became worse: at the end of his life, he could not fit into his shoes nor his hat. Finally, he had numerous stomach pains - certainly due to chronic cirrhosis, which was to be the cause of his death. Indeed, no diagnosis was made, due to the limited medical knowledge at that time, and therefore he could not have access to a real treatment. 

His medical difficulties were compounded by his personal loneliness. He suffered various failures in love and locked himself in solitude, which he expressed in his "Letter to the immortal beloved". The famous piece for piano "The letter to Elise" is a rather interesting anecdote on this subject: the legend tells that this piece would have been written for a disappointed love... 

His situation, both in terms of health and love, made him plunge into a serious depression: the reading of his correspondence proves that he thought several times of suicide, including in the letter of "Testament of Heiligenstadt". However, we must put ourselves in the context of the time. Because of Catholic religious morality, suicidal people and those who attempted to commit suicide were stigmatized and punished. One proof of the shame associated with suicide in the 18th century is the fact that the Heiligenstadt Testament was only found after the author's death and was never sent. In this context, he couldn’t freely find the psychiatric and psychological help he needed. 

In the face of adversity, music was a way out for the composer. In his correspondence with his brothers, he speaks of his dark thoughts, but he also claims that he does not wish to end his musical career. Would music been playing a saving role here? To use Durkheim's typology as exposed in “Le suicide”, Beethoven did not seem to have found his place in society, likely because of his deafness which kept him away from the world. Music allowed him to be part of society, by being recognized and by giving him a reason to live, a goal in which to dedicate all his brain and energy. 


Due to his sometimes surprising attitudes and defensive behavior, Ludwig van Beethoven was considered by his society as a misanthrope, someone who did not like the company of others. However, a reading of his correspondence reveals a completely different character. 

The Testament of Heiligenstadt, Beethoven, October 6, 1802. "O you men who think that I am a hateful, obstinate, misanthropic being, or who pass me off as such, how unjust you are! You do not know the secret reason for what seems to you so. [...] Consider that for six years I have been struck by a terrible illness, which incompetent doctors have aggravated. Year after year, disappointed by the hope of an improvement, [...] I had to isolate myself early, to live alone, far from the world. [...] If you ever read this, then think that you have not been fair to me, and that the unfortunate one consoles himself by finding someone who resembles him and who, in spite of all the obstacles of Nature, has nevertheless done everything to be admitted to the ranks of artists and men of worth."

When reading this correspondence, Beethoven appears in a completely different light. He is a musician who tries to hide his handicap. He is misunderstood by society and cannot talk about it. He is in a very delicate position: he needs his profession to support himself. His increasing deafness is jeopardizing his income and the continuity of his job. He knows that he will have to stop being a performer... Despite his undeniable skills and gift, many would have given up any musical career in view of his difficulties. And yet... History shows that there are still great successes to come for the musician. 


Beethoven, a cult composer if ever there was one, is therefore a contrasting character. The life of this leading composer of classical music was full of pitfalls. Depression, suicidal thoughts, disability and illness, the various trials of life placed him in a solitude that deeply impacted his work. Nevertheless, Beethoven's works would not have existed without his deafness: his legacy exists because of and because of his disability. 

In a sense, the constraint brought on by his disability can be seen as a creative force; his deafness prevented him from devoting himself solely to performance and pushed him towards composition, where he achieved his greatest successes and eternal fame. His deafness also allowed him to think outside the box: he created sonatas that exploited the possibilities of the piano of the time to the limit, propelled by his boundless musical creativity. 

This was not without its problems. His contemporaries considered most of his symphonies to be unplayable and thought he was no longer aware of their sonic possibilities. He was also repeatedly booed at his concerts. But the composer was aware that he was writing for future generations and that his time was not ready for the musical upheavals that he proposed. Beethoven was ahead of his time and prepared the evolution towards romanticism. 

Without these difficulties, Beethoven's philosophy would have been quite different. It presents a humanistic and universal message and permeates his music: admiration for life, human strength and the power of solidarity. His most famous work, the Ninth Symphony, of which the Ode to Joy is a part, is the ultimate proof of the triumph of joy and brotherhood over despair. 

Foundation projects that may interest you:

CreativityLab - Beethoven's Dance

Berührendes Singen und Klingen