Perhaps the most widely recognized portraits of Ludwig van Beethoven feature the wild-haired, glowering composer in his “late period” — knitted brows hooding a misanthropic gaze.
Surely a musical genius gone deaf at the height of his career had a right to be angry. But Dr. Robin Wallace, Baylor professor of musicology, says Beethoven’s story is much more complex than that.
“This is the image a lot of people have of Beethoven, his scowling defiance of the fates and then meanwhile writing these masterpieces that somehow expressed his defiance,” Wallace says. “I think that’s a rather oversimplified view of who he was.”
As 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, musicians and admirers around the world are celebrating his life, work and enduring influence. Wallace is an authority on the critical reception of Beethoven’s work and has attended several speaking engagements this year, including his keynote at the annual meeting of the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music held at Baylor in February. Wallace’s lecture discussed the subject of healing through a variety of lenses and the relationship between disability and identity.
“Healing is often a more complicated issue than people realize,” Wallace says. “Healing stories from the Bible and elsewhere suggest that everybody who is sick or disabled should want to be healed — that healing is the optimal outcome. The reality, as I’ve learned, is that many disabled people are not looking for healing but rather to be acknowledged as being whole despite having a disability.”
Wallace is the author of Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss and Discovery (University of Chicago Press, 2018). A blend of historical research and memoir, the book challenges some common assumptions about the musical giant and humanizes the composer’s struggle with profound hearing loss.
“If we could go back in history and remove Beethoven’s deafness, he may have been a happier person, but perhaps not as great or significant a composer,” Wallace says. “That may not have been a desirable thing to do.”
Few if any scholars are so well-positioned to explore Beethoven’s relationship to deafness. Wallace’s late wife Barbara suffered from profound hearing loss due to radiation therapy administered directly through her ears to treat cancer during her early 20s.
“I may be the only major Beethoven scholar who has lived with a deaf person,” Wallace says. “Barbara was diagnosed with this brain tumor on her 23rd birthday, and her original survival prognosis was about six months to three years, which is why they gave her a massive dose of radiation. It was life-saving at the time.”
When Wallace met her in 1988, Barbara was already hard of hearing, and over the years she employed a variety of hearing aids. In 2000, at age 44, Barbara woke up one morning to find she could hear nothing out of her right ear. The couple came to understand that a spasm in the blood vessel which feeds the hair cells of the inner ear had starved them of oxygen, resulting in Barbara’s permanent hearing loss in that ear.
Over the next three years, she continued to enjoy conversation, music and the sounds of everyday life in her left ear. But everything changed one June morning in 2003. Wallace had accepted what he calls a dream job with Baylor School of Music. Their home in South Carolina was nearly packed up. On the day the couple had planned to drive to Waco to look for a house, Wallace was in the shower when he heard his wife screaming, “I can’t hear anything!”
“We knew this was a possibility — that she could lose hearing in her good ear just as suddenly as she’d lost it in her right ear three years earlier,” Wallace says. “I don’t think we gave much thought to what that would entail until it actually happened.”
What Barbara experienced is called sensorineural deafness. Close to 20,000 hair cells — actually nerve cells — in each ear register the vibrations from sound. The hairs are arrayed in a marvelous complexity to provide the brain with information. The brain translates the vibrations into musical pitches and other information about the nature of what a person hears.
While Wallace asserts that trying to diagnose Beethoven 200 years after his death is a fool’s errand, Hearing Beethoven outlines in fascinating detail much of the composer’s medical history and explores the potential causes of his deafness and related speculation. There are reasons to believe that Beethoven’s hearing loss was more complicated than a sensorineural diagnosis.
“We have reason to think he suffered some obstructive hearing loss as well, particularly what’s called otosclerosis, which is a hardening of the bones in the middle ear that normally convey the sounds,” Wallace says.
While researching Hearing Beethoven, Wallace found writings in which the composer reported buzzing or ringing in the ears — known as tinnitus — that bothered him constantly.
“[Beethoven] also reports a phenomenon known as loudness recruitment, where basically the ear makes up for not being able to hear some sounds by registering others as louder than they actually are,” Wallace says. “He complains in one of his letters that when somebody shouts, he can’t bear it because it’s so loud.”
While tinnitus and loudness recruitment are symptomatic of sensorineural deafness, Beethoven did not report any of the dizziness or loss of balance that typically accompany the condition. These symptoms presented a significant struggle for Barbara.
On that fateful morning in June 2003, Wallace rushed his wife to the nearest emergency room. Steroids injected directly and painfully into Barbara’s ear failed to restore her hearing. By this time, Wallace had already terminated his employment with Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and accepted the position at Baylor. The move to Waco was delayed, but they could not cancel their plans altogether.
“The following six months of Barbara’s life, she told me, felt like being in solitary confinement,” Wallace says.
He could not comfort his wife with spoken words. She could not converse with their two children, then 11 and 9 years old. Their friends in Spartanburg did not know what to say or how to communicate with Barbara. Everything communicated to her had to be written.
Wallace recounts in Hearing Beethoven: “I did what, as a Beethoven scholar, I knew Beethoven and his companions had done during the final decade of his life. I picked up a legal pad and began a ‘conversation book’ in which I could write to her and she would respond orally. We would fill dozens of them over the next several months.”
In early August 2003, the Wallace family moved to Waco. There, Barbara’s sense of isolation peaked. She knew no one in Waco and had no way of making contacts. She was cut off from meaningful communication with her children and from new friendships. Additionally, she could not connect with the deaf community because she did not know sign language.
In his writings, Beethoven complained a great deal about this same isolation; however, unlike Barbara’s deafness, his deafness developed gradually. Only a few years after his Fifth Symphony premiered Dec. 22, 1808, in Vienna, Beethoven began making use of ear trumpets. These were essentially inverted megaphones, the narrow end of which was inserted into the ear, directing a stream of amplified sound into the ear canal. By 1812, Beethoven’s interpersonal communication entailed a lot of shouting and embarrassment for the composer. He often spoke too loudly, and his piano playing had become insufferable, according to one witness who detailed missed notes and an out-of-tune piano during an 1814 performance.
Beethoven detailed his anguish over his failing hearing, including thoughts of suicide, in the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, a document written to his two brothers in 1802. The letter reflects the composer’s despair; it also underscores his sense of personal, artistic destiny and his determination to fulfill his musical calling.
“If you read between the lines of Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven is saying that he’s determined to bring forth everything that he believes that is inside of him. And he’s not going to stop until he’s done,” Wallace says. “That can be read in a variety of ways. It can be read as a gesture of defiance, which is how it’s popularly understood. Or it can just be read as, ‘OK, this is what I’m going to have to do. I will do whatever is necessary.’”
This is a point where Barbara’s and Beethoven’s stories converge, Wallace says, because both refused to abandon their sense of personal vocation — Barbara’s as a mother, wife and daughter, and Beethoven’s as an artist. Both identified relentlessly with their calling, not with their disability. Both used the technology available during their respective lifetimes. It is what Wallace calls a steady, determined adjustment.
“One thing that I figured out in the process of writing Hearing Beethoven is that we don’t really hear with our ears,” Wallace says. “We hear with our brains; the ears are the delivery mechanism for sound. But sound comes to us in other forms, as well. It comes through vibration. It comes through the body. It comes through observation of people making music. It comes through memory.”
Soon after the Wallaces moved to Waco in August 2003, an audiologist at Baylor showed Barbara how to use a pocket talker — a cumbersome contraption with headphones for the listener and a corded microphone for the speaker. However, the sounds she registered through use of the device were nothing like what she was accustomed to hearing before going deaf. Similarly, after she received a cochlear implant in fall 2003 and the external device was turned on, the sounds to which she had new access were unrecognizable.
“I increasingly believe, for Beethoven, that hearing came through the physical actions of music making, of playing an instrument, of writing music on paper and so forth.”
In his book, Wallace recalls a day when Barbara heard a sound she couldn’t place and asked her husband, “What is that?” He told her, “A dog barking.” Once that connection was made, that same noise sounded to her exactly as a barking dog had sounded before she lost her hearing. Her brain had blended or matched the new sound with her memory of what a barking dog sounded like. As Barbara learned to hear all over again using the implant, this type of thing happened repeatedly, suggesting that hearing itself is a physical, active process.
“I increasingly believe, for Beethoven, that hearing came through the physical actions of music making, of playing an instrument, of writing music on paper and so forth,” Wallace says. “All those things tap into the same part of the brain that is attuned to music and that is particularly highly developed in trained musicians.”
The question for music scholars and lay listeners alike is: How? How did Beethoven compose, for instance, his Ninth Symphony without being able to hear it? The popular understanding is that Beethoven became deaf, then relied on an uncanny ability to “hear” his compositions in his head, then simply wrote down what he “heard.”
Through his research, however, Wallace came to a much fuller, more nuanced understanding. Like other composers and throughout his career, Beethoven used musical instruments, pencil and paper to create and record music; although, Beethoven did so in more novel and enduring ways. As his deafness increased, Beethoven did the same things, adding the resources and habits necessary to complete the work to his satisfaction. In addition to using ear trumpets and more physically substantial instruments for his personal use, Beethoven had a special resonator built to replace the lid of his piano and deflect the percussive sound back toward him.
“I can imagine Beethoven hunched over his piano with his head under the resonator, and the vibrations,” Wallace says. “This has been studied with the particular piano he had at the time — the vibrations came through the floor. They surrounded him from all directions. I don’t want to say it was a substitute for hearing, but it was a way of hearing, a way of making physical contact with musical sound that went beyond what he could do with his ears.”
The resonator was not built until 1820, Wallace says, six years before Beethoven died. While the composer could hardly hear anything, it was worth constructing that resonator over his piano so that he could get a tiny bit more than he would have been able to without it.
“What a lot of people probably don’t understand about Beethoven and Mozart and other composers at that time is that when they performed in public, they mostly improvised,” Wallace says. “They did play written compositions, but a good part of what they did involved improvising in front of people.”
There is evidence that Beethoven began to rely on the use of pen and paper — his elaborate musical sketches, as they are known — as a means of experiencing his music and as a means of improvisation.
“Probably more than any other composer, he worked incessantly in writing sketch after sketch and revision after revision,” Wallace says. “And even at the final stage of writing a manuscript, he was frequently crossing things out and correcting things and writing marginal notes and references back to earlier places and so forth. The original manuscript of his Fifth Symphony is barely legible. But it was the actual physical process of writing that became increasingly the creative process in music for Beethoven.”
On the evening of Wallace’s 56th birthday, Barbara suffered a hemorrhagic stroke and passed away as severe complications mounted. In the years following Barbara’s death, Wallace’s reflections on her life and his academic research combined to recast the crude, broad-strokes image of Beethoven as mythic hero, demigod or unreachable genius. The composer was a whole person whose musical oeuvre, too, was whole — vastly more than those first four ominous notes of the Fifth Symphony.
Without doubt, Wallace’s response to Barbara’s experience has lent a singular wholeness to his life and work. His research is thorough, says Dr. Gary Mortenson, Baylor School of Music dean, and it is uniquely internalized.
“Dr. Wallace is passionate about his work,” Mortenson says. “While it resides deep within his imagination, his commitment to the highest standards of scholarly research is evident.”
Wallace says the epilogue of Hearing Beethoven, titled “Embracing Wholeness,” is “the most deeply personal thing [he has] ever written for publication.” In this final chapter, Wallace discusses his late wife’s wholeness achieved — not by overcoming her challenges but by learning to live life within them.
“Barbara found a life she did not expect but that transformed her, our family and everyone who opened their hearts to us,” Wallace writes. “Beethoven, facing the same affliction, nevertheless found a music that would let all the fullness of human life resound.”