You’re arguably the greatest musical force in history, and something inside you knows this, feels the weight and the call of it. You seem to have been born hearing the music of the spheres, with the strong determination to transcribe and share it with your fellow humans.
Like most all artists, you suffer various torments related to the struggle of creating something from nothing, to become as a god in wrestling ultimate beauty, harmony, wisdom from the unformed dust of creation.
This noble purpose clashes with the all-too-human vagaries of your personality, some endowed at birth, others formed by a miserable childhood under a highly abusive alcoholic father. He as much as beats music into you, but rather than recoil, you forge music into your own answer, a kind of transcendent revenge in which you explore and expand upon the very depths of disconsolation and tragedy, beauty and triumph.
Widely acclaimed but still two years short of your 30th birthday, a whole sparkling world at your feet, you find yourself asking people in everyday conversation to repeat themselves, and sometimes seem to have trouble tracking the woodwinds when you inhabit the conductor’s podium.
It is my wish that your lives be better and freer from care than I have had, recommend virtue to your children, it alone can give happiness, not money, I speak from experience, it was virtue that upheld me in misery, to it next to my art I owe the fact that I did not end my life with suicide.
You dismiss it at first, but the problem only intensifies with the years. One now desperate visit to a doctor follows another, leaving you unhealed, unfulfilled and often enraged. You drink, suffer depression, drink more—but always you write music.
You’re Ludwig van Beethoven, and this is the tragedy of your slow but inexorable march toward deafness. By your mid-40s, you will hear very little and will no longer perform or even appear much in public. But long before you do, as your hope for a cure slips away, you write a letter at age 31, an offshoot of a last will and testament, to your brothers Karl and Johann, in which you try to describe, in haunted tones, both your torment and your hopes for the posterity for which you will continue writing world-changing music over the next quarter century..
That letter, which you note as the “Heilgenstadt Testament” owing to the East German town in which you write it, is discovered in your papers after your death at age 56. The words represent an eternity-focused expression of pain and longing for beauty by a soul who knew both in abundance, and lived and died on their terms.
(Note: As seen from the small photocopy of Beethoven’s original letter atop this page, it was written, in the style of the times, in a nearly unbroken script, sans paragraph breaks (and often in run-on sentences). For readability purposes that I am certain you will understand, I have broken up that text below [you’re welcome!]. So when you see paragraph breaks or ellipses, please know the text continued unbroken in Beethoven’s almost fevered-looking original, and is also translated here from the German.)
For my brothers Karl and [Johann] Beethoven
O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible)…
…born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.
Ah how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection, a perfection such as few surely in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed – O I cannot do it, therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would gladly mingle with you, my misfortune is doubly painful because it must lead to my being misunderstood…
…for me there can be no recreations in society of my fellows, refined intercourse, mutual exchange of thought, only just as little as the greatest needs command disposition, although I sometimes ran counter to it yielding to my inclination for society, but what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence – truly wretched, an excitable body which a sudden change can throw from the best into the worst state –
Patience – it is said that I must now choose for my guide, I have done so, I hope my determination will remain firm to endure until it please the inexorable parcae to break the thread, perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not, I am prepared. Forced already in my 28th year to become a philosopher, O it is not easy, less easy for the artist than for anyone else – Divine One thou lookest into my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein. O men, when some day you read these words, reflect that you did me wrong and let the unfortunate one comfort himself and find one of his kind who despite all obstacles of nature yet did all that was in his power to be accepted among worthy artists and men.
You my brothers Karl and [Johann] as soon as I am dead if Dr. Schmid is still alive ask him in my name to describe my malady and attach this document to the history of my illness so that so far as possible at least the world may become reconciled with me after my death. At the same time I declare you two to be the heirs to my small fortune (if so it can be called), divide it fairly, bear with and help each other, what injury you have done me you know was long ago forgiven.
To you brother Karl I give special thanks for the attachment you have displayed towards me of late. It is my wish that your lives be better and freer from care than I have had, recommend virtue to your children, it alone can give happiness, not money, I speak from experience, it was virtue that upheld me in misery, to it next to my art I owe the fact that I did not end my life with suicide. –
Farewell and love each other – I thank all my friends, particularly Prince Lichnowsky and Professor Schmid – I desire that the instruments from Prince L. be preserved by one of you but let no quarrel result from this, so soon as they can serve you better purpose sell them, how glad will I be if I can still be helpful to you in my grave –
…with joy I hasten towards death – if it comes before I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities it will still come too early for me despite my hard fate and I shall probably wish it had come later – but even then I am satisfied, will it not free me from my state of endless suffering? Come when thou will I shall meet thee bravely. – Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead, I deserve this of you in having often in life thought of you how to make you happy, be so –
October 6, 1802 Ludwig van Beethoven
For my brothers Karl and [Johann]
to be read and executed after my death.
One of the joys of fleeing the city to the mountains, deserts and prairies is the delicious, at first almost eerie experience of becoming free of noise. Absent cars, cranes, sirens, leafblowers and idiots revving ear-piercing engines on motorcycles that should be illegal and impounded within a block of leaving their garage (!!!), we stand astonished at the wholly different world we inhabit, blessed by and bathing in the simple absence of noise.
Paradoxically, of course, the roar of the ocean and the afternoon wind through mountain pines possess their own form of silence, gladly received.
Hearing loss, however, complicates life in myriad ways. Silence becomes an encroaching enemy, cutting us off not only from our primary form of communication, but also from the life-enhancing experience of spoken words, laughter, music, wind, and the abundant aural delights of the natural world.
Several years ago, I climbed out of the car at night on a trip to the mountains and was astonished by a raucous symphony of crickets and katydids that felt overwhelming—in all the best ways. Nature’s own insistent din. Having suffered hearing loss great enough to obtain hearing aids several years before, I decided to conduct an on-the-spot experiment by removing them.
The result: a dead silence that enveloped the night air—and which would have been welcome had I not known what was on the other side of that wall now separating me from a significant part of the world
I was inhabiting.
Fortunately, that world was accessible again to me the moment I reinserted my hearing aids. In 1798, doctors offered Beethoven those comical looking earhorns used to try to funnel sound to his ears, along with exotic supposed cures such as strapping bark to his upper arms and bathing regularly in the river. His hearing grew only worse.
Legend has it that Beethoven was stone deaf when conducting the premiere of his titanic 9th Symphony in 1824, but research published in 2020 strongly suggests he retained at least faint hearing in one ear until some time beyond that.
What we do know for certain is that his music-making carried on despite his hearing loss, likely lead poisoning, and the many health problems associated with his heavy drinking, which included a ruined liver.
With that tragic backstory forever a part of his biography, Beethoven may just be the premier historical example of the alternately tortured and joyous artist, seeking to scale the heights of godly vision via the creative act while knowing all too well the depths of despair always roiling and pulling from below.
And with that despair amplified by the fateful, surpassingly cruel descent of severe hearing loss, the irony tormented him all the rest of his life.
Dead at 56, his legacy was assured by a dramatic body of work crowned by the 9th Symphony and the six late string quartets (Nos. 12-17), his last completed works. All of them written when his hearing was almost nil.
Regarded as inscrutable in its time but since hailed by the music world as a singular artistic accomplishment, the quartets plumb the depths of human experience in all its beauty and ravishments, set into a corollary language of sound created by strings and wood and the consciousness of one person uniquely gifted and cursed by the gods.
Beethoven wrote his Piano Sonata No. 14, later dubbed by a critic as the “Moonlight Sonata” in recognition of its mournful contemplative qualities, in 1801, when he was 30 years old and already suffering notable hearing loss. This first of three movements is probably the most popular, and was described by fellow composer Hector Berlioz as “one of those poems that human language does not know how to qualify.”
Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.
Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Copy of the original letter from the public domain
Beethoven bust photo by Leo Reynolds, Norwich, England https://www.flickr.com/photos/lwr/
Leaf drop by Michael E., Oberbayern, Germany https://www.flickr.com/photos/24842334@N07/
Cricket by Jean-Cristophe https://www.flickr.com/photos/jean_christophe/
“Joys, Sufferings, Creation: Beethoven’ Heiligenstadt Testament” brings back memories of my father’s hearing loss in the last years of his life. Fortunately, he was a painter. I do remember him often listening to Beethoven while standing at an easel with fumes arising from his paints, linseed oil and turpentine. As a side note, Henri Matisse, following surgery for abdominal cancer, which left him largely bound to a wheelchair, found painting and sculpting physically exhausting. Hence, for the last decade of his life, he produced colorful paper collages (decoupage) that allowed him to continue his love for artistic creativity. Again, thanks for the rekindling of a treasured memory.
Nice picture, Robert, of your dad painting along with his buddy Beethoven. Little version of heaven there, I’d say.
As a child I would sometimes play a game of speculation with my friends, tossing around various fates of our senses and trying to decide which would be the worst to lose. Loss of smell, taste, and touch were of course bandied about, with speculation, horror and fascination. However, the question of “Would you most hate to be blind or deaf?” was by far the most popular discussion point, the Sophie’s Choice we could revel in from the safety of our healthy eyes and ears. We could blindfold ourselves and stumble through our suddenly unfamiliar landscapes, enjoying the novel challenge and yet appreciating the dawning, sobering realization that this fate was not a novelty but a reality for many humans. We could stuff our ears with tissues and cover them with earmuffs and explore that reality as well, a fun game for an afternoon, for a slumber party.
Well, age and heredity have now had their way with me, and these encroaching physical limitations are no longer a speculative game, we are in it for real, with high stakes indeed. I got a longer run than Beethoven, and while his loss was more extensive and is fraught with irony, I will attest to daily frustration and occasional sadness at the impairment of my hearing. One can imagine, as the children we once were, some of these circumstances, such as requiring my daughter to translate the sweet first sentences of my grandson, and the frustration of asking people to look at you when they speak and they say “Of course!” and forget, again, of course they do, which is on the spectrum of life’s challenges, along with people responding by articulatingveryclearly and/or shouting.
No need really to itemize the other, myriad ways this loss seeps into almost every corner of life; suffice to say, it does. I consider myself lucky to live with another hearing impaired person, as it’s a plain fact that many people, compassionate or not, don’t understand limitations until they themselves have experienced them.
Handicaps are somewhat tolerated in our society, thanks largely to the fierce warriors that brought the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into being. And I do have hearing aids, Hallelujah! Which are very very expensive and very very rarely covered by insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, even though the negative impact of hearing loss on overall health are well documented. It took me 18 months to pay them off, and despite the monumental technological advances in hearing devices, and price reduction to some extent, I am still using the original pair, now a decade old.
Beethoven writes so poignantly of his loss and the ultimate isolation and tragedy of being separated from his own beloved music, and no doubt the struggles of daily communication. It’s hard to imagine what would he have been able to create if he had had access to hearing aids. I had never read this letter before, and find it so moving.
Lovely, heart-tugging reflection on the challenges of hearing impairment, Mary, thank you. That primal question—hearing or vision? one has to go—has always been a real tussle in my own mind, and I’m not sure I’ve settled on it yet. The good news is, as you say, hearing aids—which just became a lot more affordable a couple weeks ago by an act of Congress making them available over the counter for the first time. Poor Beethoven was born 200 years too early, I fear, though God only knows how his gifts would have translated into today’s music world. Might make for a fun novel, though!
Love this blog entry! Thanks for bringing that letter to this wider attention.
You’re most welcome, thanks for reading!