Robin Wallace

Season 3 - Episode 346

November 20, 2020

Robin Wallace
Robin Wallace

Few Beethoven scholars have as meaningful a connection to the impact of deafness on the composer’s works as Robin Wallace, Baylor professor of musicology. Wallace’s late wife, Barbara, suffered from profound hearing loss, providing insights into the impact of the disability both relationally and creatively. This year marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, and on this Baylor Connections, Wallace celebrates his legacy by examining the ways Beethoven, as well as Barbara, found wholeness and expression amidst deep physical challenges.

Transcript

Derek Smith:

Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in-depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith. Our guest today is Robin Wallace, professor of musicology in the Baylor School of Music. This year marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth, and Dr. Wallace has much to share on the composer as a leading expert and scholar into Beethoven, his critical reception, and the impact of deafness on his compositions. Dr. Wallace is the author of Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss and Discovery, a probing study of Beethoven's deafness based partly on his own experience with Barbara, his late wife, who dealt with profound hearing loss and its incumbent challenges. It's a big year to study Beethoven. Even in the midst of this pandemic, a lot of attention focused on him on this 250th anniversary of his birth. Dr. Wallace, it's really great to get to visit with you about all of that and more. Thanks so much for your time and taking the time to join us today.

Robin Wallace:

It's good to be here, Derek.

Derek Smith:

Excited to learn more about Beethoven and to dig more into your insights. Had the chance to read your book early, and we're going to delve into that. I want to start off by just asking you, for you personally, why Beethoven? Now you could go a lot of directions in your music research, so what was it about his music and his life that really captivated your scholarly attention?

Robin Wallace:

Beethoven's music has just always spoken to me in a very personal way. That's been true since I was in high school and really began to dig into his piano sonatas and his string quartets. I found that particularly the late works, the ones that a lot of people have often had trouble with that are supposed to be so difficult to understand, it just spoke to me at a deep level. I felt at that point, and I still feel like, this is the most profound level of human expression. I really, from a early age, just wanted to engage with that as deeply as I could.

Derek Smith:

For more of a layman's perspective, obviously the music that he created has staying power. There have been a lot of great musicians over the last 250 years, but very few who this much, this long after their birth, remain a household name, music that's instantly recognizable. Why is that? Why has Beethoven lasted and continued to matter like he does?

Robin Wallace:

Well, there are a number of reasons for that. Obviously, some of his staying power has to do with cultural factors that go beyond just his music and his impact. But I think it's also fair to say that Beethoven, generally, and also the romantic movement that came after him, changed the way that people look at music and the value that was given to music certainly within the society of the time. But I think it's still true today, and I'm not just talking about the world of classical music. I think the popular music world today in which we have this sort of larger than life personal figures, who are taken very seriously as bearers of our culture, I don't think that would have been possible if Beethoven had not been there and paved the way for that.

Derek Smith:

If you could take us back into that time just a little bit, how did he change music and also the personality aspect of it? What was it about him then that impacts that now?

Robin Wallace:

Well, it's not just him. It was the receptivity that people had to music at the time. That in turn ties into my own scholarly work, which has had to do with the critical reception of Beethoven's music. I decided very early to get into that topic because I was interested in the very questions you're asking from the start. Why did people particularly find value in this music, what kind of value did they find in it, and how did they continue to articulate that value? I would say that he came along at a time when people were increasingly receptive to the idea that a musician working outside the bounds of the areas in which musicians traditionally worked could develop a very powerful message. So in a sense, he was in the right place at the right time.

Derek Smith:

Visiting with Dr. Robin Wallace, professor of musicology and an Beethoven expert. You talk about studying the critical reception. What is fun for you, what is most enjoyable about studying that reception and maybe comparing its reception in his own day to our own impressions now?

Robin Wallace:

Well, discovering the extent to which some of our ideas that we have about Beethoven today were not necessarily there from the beginning. I think that's particularly true when it comes to understanding his deafness, which has been the subject of my recent research. The awareness that Beethoven was deaf and the idea that this had had a profound influence on his music really didn't come to the fore until after he died and some discoveries were made, including the Heiligenstadt Testament, the letter that he wrote in 1802 at the age of 31, in which he poured out his heart about his deafness. I think it's after reading that that people began to more seriously entertain the idea that Beethoven's music was autobiographical and that it had to do with his confrontation with deafness. But that wasn't necessarily there from the beginning.

Derek Smith:

Well, you talk about that. Many people might be aware that he's deaf. For some people, maybe that's an interesting trivia question. For others, obviously it begs broad questions of how did someone who couldn't hear create such lasting music. But for you as a musicologist, and to someone, as we're going to delve into more, who has dealt with deafness in your own family, when you first began to really grapple with his deafness, whether it's just from your own perspective as a musicologist, scholarly works, what are some of the questions that that begs for you? What were some of the questions that you wanted to investigate?

Robin Wallace:

Well, I don't think I really began to think about Beethoven's deafness as a part of his creative work. It was something that everybody knew about, but has never really been that well understood. It wasn't until my late wife, Barbara, whom you mentioned earlier, lost her hearing, which interestingly was in the very same year, 2003, that I first came to Baylor, and it was almost immediately before the move. We had to move cross-country in the midst of this profound challenge. She actually went deaf quite suddenly. As I watched the ways that she and I worked to adjust to that loss and to communicate with other people and to figure out how to do things that most people would consider fairly routine, I kind of naturally began to think about Beethoven, also, and realizing he had been through the same thing and he must've faced some of the same kinds of challenges. How, how did he deal with that and how did that affect his relationship with music? That question, I began to think about more deeply after Barbara received a cochlear implant, which allowed her to recover some of her hearing and also allowed her some musical experience, but very limited musical experience. So once again, I realized Beethoven, even with profound hearing loss, probably was still able to hear something. He had to maximize the hearing that he did have and also look for other ways to enhance his experience with music that went beyond hearing. So the more personal experience I had of this, the more intrigued I became by those questions.

Derek Smith:

Well, you really do a fantastic job in the book, Hearing Beethoven, mixing scholarly insights with a personal memoir style. I want to ask you about some of that here as we'll try to go back and forth a little bit here on the program and tie in, as you did in the book, your own story with Beethoven's. You told us a little bit about Barbara. She suddenly became deaf. What can you tell us just to take us inside that experience so that we can understand even a little bit more the world that as it changed for Barbara and for you all amidst so much change of moving to a new city, a new school, and the challenges that she had overcome with that?

Robin Wallace:

Well, I think what a lot of people probably don't understand about deafness is that the biggest challenges that someone faces if they suddenly lose their hearing have to do with their social life, with the way that they relate to other people. Now, if someone grows up deaf and lives within the deaf community, that is not a challenge in the same way because they have a community, they have sign language to communicate with and so forth. Barbara had none of that. She said that that time after she lost her hearing, but before she got the implant, felt like being in solitary confinement. It was just profoundly set her apart from everybody else, even me. We had to struggle with even our most basic communications.

Derek Smith:

Visiting with Dr. Robin Wallace, professor of musicology and author of the book Hearing Beethoven, here on Baylor Connections. I know deafness takes many forms. You said Barbara's came on suddenly. What can we know about, for Beethoven, tinnitus that he suffered from? What does that look like for him as compared to Barbara's, how she lived that out?

Robin Wallace:

Well, that's hard to say because, obviously, I didn't know Beethoven personally. But we know from his own accounts that he experienced some of the same things, tinnitus or tinnitus ringing in the ears, distracting noises, loudness recruitment, which is when someone that's losing their hearing they will frequently experience someone speaking loudly as that they're shouting at them because their ears overcompensate for the loss of other sounds. So again, we know Beethoven experienced those things because he wrote about them, and we also know that he experienced that social isolation as well. In fact, that's kind of become a part of the persona that most people associate with Beethoven, the lone genius who lives in isolation from other people and therefore, presumably, creates profound masterworks that other people can't touch. That aspect of Beethoven's reputation, I increasingly came to believe, was constructed after the fact based on the social isolation that was caused by his deafness. He didn't choose that.

Derek Smith:

With that, there is, like you said, things that were constructed afterwards, almost myths, is there something of a scholarly consensus around the impact of his deafness? Are there things that we can say, you in the musicology community feel confident in saying?

Robin Wallace:

No.

Derek Smith:

No? Okay.

Robin Wallace:

I realized when I began to dig into this topic, that for all that has been written about Beethoven, there really is very little in depth understanding of his deafness and how it affected his music. That was one thing that I set out to remedy in the book. I can't claim to understand everything by any means, but I think what made my approach different was I didn't just start looking at the music and saying, "Okay, what kind of things would somebody who was deaf write?" I began to think about the how of it. How would he compensate for not being able to hear as well? Part of that had to do with using various assisted devices, like ear trumpets and a resonator that he had built for his piano in his last years. But part of it had to do with relying on his other senses as well, on touch and feel and the increasing amount of attention that he gave to writing in his later years, both the writing of the finished work and the extensive sketching that went into it. This is kind of an important, but a subtle, distinction to make. A lot of Beethoven scholars have approached the vast number of sketches that Beethoven left behind as a record of his creative process as something that shows what was going on in his head as he put these pieces together. While I don't disagree with that, I would go further and say that these sketches are the creative process, that it is actually in the engagement of pen with paper and the physical sketching of the notes and the staves that eventually turned into a complete work that we can see Beethoven engaging with the sense of touch and sight to create music in a way that went beyond just his ears.

Derek Smith:

Visiting with Dr. Robin Wallace. Dr. Wallace, as you talk about the fact that there isn't a scholarly consensus, I mean, it's your understanding, right, that you might be the only Beethoven scholar grappling with his deafness who's actually experienced that in in his or her own family? Is that that correct?

Robin Wallace:

Well, I don't think that I'm the only one. In fact, as I've talked to other Beethoven scholars about my book, some of them have told me that they really appreciate reading that because they also had a family member with hearing loss. So it's not as unusual as you might think.

Derek Smith:

Okay. Talking with Dr. Robin Wallace. Dr. Wallace, you mentioned the creative process using other sentence senses. It's obviously quite marvelous that he was able to create beautiful music without the sense of hearing as we think of it. So what are some of the ways that you can see him utilizing senses, utilizing tools, like you said, the resonator, more than just to hear the music, but to feel it, whether those processes be physical or whether they be operational in nature?

Robin Wallace:

Well, I think they're both. I think I just talked about the sketching, which so probably seems abstract to a lot of people, but I think I also confirmed through my research and through my personal experience the idea that Beethoven depended to a large extent on physical contact with his pianos. This is sort of the opposite of what people tend to think, that as he grew more deaf, he was just writing the abstract, he was thinking things in his head, he didn't need the piano anymore. If anything, he seems to have become even more dependent on his pianos as his hearing failed him. Part of that did have to do with the aspect of physical touch. I had the chance to, while I was working on the book, to go to Belgium, to the workshop of Chris Maene, the piano manufacturer, who has recently recreated the Broadwood piano that Beethoven owned during the last years of his life. He has built an instrument to the exact specifications of that piano that presumably is identical to the instrument that Beethoven received in 1818. If you sit down at that piano, you really do get a very physical sense from it. You can feel the vibrations in your body. You can feel them through the floor. The sound of the instrument is actually kind of muddier than the Viennese pianos that Beethoven had before. So I realized very quickly that it wasn't the loudness of the instrument that intrigued him, it was the resistance, the power of the touch, and the way that he could sink himself into the keys and then physically fuse with the instrument, even as he heard less and less.

Derek Smith:

Do most of us probably underestimate the impact of that physical feeling with music? Maybe we know when we go to a concert and feel the vibration, we recognize it, but in most normal situations, do we maybe underappreciate that? Was that something you even saw with Barbara as she experienced music in new ways?

Robin Wallace:

Yes. Well, it's no secret that music is a very physical experience. I think it's easy to ignore that when most of your experience of listening to music is through recordings. You don't necessarily see the performers and you're not as aware of their physical contact with the instrument as you would be if you saw them live. But I think most people, even listening to recordings, will tend to want to move with the music, to keep a beat, to tap or something. I think, to some extent, people even have a guilty conscience about that. There's a sense that if you're really listening to the music that you're going to sit quietly, just like if you were in a concert hall, sit in religious silence and wait for the piece to be over to stand up and clap. So I guess even in a live performance, it's easy to lose track of the idea of what a physical experience music is.

Derek Smith:

Visiting with Dr. Robin Wallace. Dr. Wallace, in the book, as you talk about you and Barbara communicating with each other, there's almost a certain element of creativity, is the word, but you're overcoming obstacles together to find that sense of normalcy. I don't know how much we know about how Beethoven did that. You mentioned that he used different tools to do the things that he wanted to do, but do we have a sense of how that impacted him as a musician? You mentioned that some of his pieces were autobiographical, and I'm wondering if you could elaborate more on that and if that kind of overcoming obstacles played in in any way?

Robin Wallace:

Well, let me clarify two things there. I don't think Beethoven necessarily thought of his music as autobiographical. The interpretation that it was as one that came after the fact, and it was closely tied together with that other idea that Beethoven overcame these obstacles, that he somehow overcame his deafness and produced these great masterworks. I guess I have a problem with that in the sense that I don't think that he ever overcame anything. I think, as you said, though, he sort of creatively adjusted to things and figured out how to work around the various problems that deafness threw his way, which was exactly what Barbara and I did. So if you think about it that way, it's actually a much more intriguing story than the idea that he just confronted deafness and overcame it.

Derek Smith:

Well, that's really, you just touched on it, but I want to ask you specifically, you share some similarly poignant thoughts about healing and wholeness from your own journey with Barbara and from studying Beethoven. Can you share with us a little bit that about what healing and really, even more specifically, wholeness means to a person who deals with a disability, but does, really, I think, whether it be Beethoven whose works we still remember, or people like Barbara who really do quietly amazing things every day?

Robin Wallace:

Yes. I think, unfortunately, we tend to have a rather black and white understanding of the nature of healing and wholeness, the idea that if somebody has a disability like deafness, that there's only one way that they can deal with that fully, which is by having it cured and then there'll be whole again. I think in researching this book, I became involved with disability studies more broadly and realize that to disability advocates, that that very idea is the problem that wholeness equals overcoming, wholeness equals being cured, wholeness equals being restored to some prior state. Neither of those things needs to happen in order for a person to achieve wholeness. What you have to do, or what I found Beethoven doing, rather, was looking for wholeness within the limitations that he had, grappling with his disability and learning to work with it, finding what he could and could not do, and drawing the parameters of his life accordingly. I think if you understand wholeness that way, it opens you up to a whole new appreciation of grace. That grace and healing don't just have to come in obvious physical and tangible ways, but they can also enter into your life in a way that can make somebody whole despite having limitations that other people would find overwhelming, and, in fact, perhaps even because of having those limitations. I think that Beethoven probably became a more well-rounded musician because of his deafness than he might have been otherwise.

Derek Smith:

Well, Dr. Wallace, those are really beautiful thoughts, and certainly, I think, emblematic of what people can find as they learn more about your story. As we close, I want to ask if people are intrigued by what they heard us talk about for the book, Hearing Beethoven, where and how can they find that?

Robin Wallace:

Well, the book is for sale from the University of Chicago Press. It's also available as an ebook. It's available from most online vendors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. There are also a couple of copies at the Waco Public Library and at the Baylor Library, and I believe that many other university and public libraries throughout the country have it as well.

Derek Smith:

The book is called Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss and Discovery, and a good time to read it now, here on the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth. Well, Dr. Wallace, thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate you taking the time to share.

Robin Wallace:

You're welcome. I've enjoyed it.

Derek Smith:

Absolutely. Dr. Robin Wallace, professor of musicology in the Baylor School of Music, our guest today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.