Arthur C. Brooks writes about how Ludwig van Beethoven dealt with his gradual hearing loss, which, while crushing to a genius composer, ultimately lead him to new heights of greatness.
It seems a mystery that Beethoven became more original and brilliant as a composer in inverse proportion to his ability to hear his own — and others’ — music. But maybe it isn’t so surprising. As his hearing deteriorated, he was less influenced by the prevailing compositional fashions, and more by the musical structures forming inside his own head. His early work is pleasantly reminiscent of his early instructor, the hugely popular Josef Haydn. Beethoven’s later work became so original that he was, and is, regarded as the father of music’s romantic period. “He opened up a new world in music,” said French romantic master Hector Berlioz. “Beethoven is not human.”
Brooks takes this as a lesson in loss. He says that here Beethoven shows us how losing something precious can open up new possibilities and ideas, and all of that is true. But that’s not the lesson I take.
When Beethoven lost his hearing, he could no longer be aware of what others in his field were doing. Whatever music was being lauded or pilloried at the time, Beethoven had no way to know what it sounded like. He had no way to compare his work to anyone else’s. All he had were his memories of what had come before.
To me, the lesson isn’t how Beethoven turned the tables on fortune and made something beautiful out of loss. (And I do have my own, albeit far less severe, experience of hearing loss to draw from here.) The lesson is that his loss meant that he was no longer burdened with his own perception of what great music is supposed to be. Beyond what he could still hear in his own mind from his musical memory banks, there was nothing for Beethoven to compare himself to. The energy spent and wasted on anxiety and self-doubt brought on by the desire to suit the tastes of the time, his genius was liberated, freeing him to make the best music he was capable of at that moment.
Before I sat down to write this, I caught myself wondering whether the traditional early-2000s-era blog format was still viable, whether anyone would want to read a post by a relative nobody responding to an article by a relative somebody about an indisputably significant somebody. I worried whether the format would make me seem unhip. I worried that whatever I wrote might better suit a magazine essay, which would never be written (nor published if it were), or if it might be best to simply tweet a condensed version of my thoughts, and leave it at that. In other words, I wasted time and energy on anxiety about what my writing is “supposed” to look like.
Imagine that I came to this piece with no preconceived notions of the form my thoughts should take. Imagine I had no respectable essays, eye-catching blog posts, or pithy tweets to compare myself to. Imagine that all I had were my thoughts and my skills as a writer, whatever they happened to be at this moment.
Beethoven’s loss forced him into a position of ignorance. His deafness gave him no choice, but that ignorance freed him. His earlier work sounded like somebody else’s, the work of people he thought were “doing it right.” When he could hear no one else, “doing it right” meant only what was right to him in his own mind.
I, and we, do not have to wait for loss. We do not have to be forced into a kind of ignorance. We can choose to learn from what others have done, build on what we have already accomplished ourselves, and then let everything go. Then we can be free, and we can know it, too. We can open up a new world without loss.
Beethoven is not human, and neither am I. Thank god.