Happy Birthday, Beethoven
This year marks the 250th year of the birth of Ludwig von Beethoven, one of the great figures of western music. Recognized as a musical genius in his own time, his compositions continue to thrill music lovers today.
Born in 1770, he died in 1827 at the age of 56. He suffered a range of physical ailments, including hearing loss. As he wrote at the age of 30:
“My hearing has been growing worse. I do not hear the high notes of the instruments. I hardly hear people who speak softly. And yet if anyone shouts I can’t bear it.”
Beethoven tried to keep his hearing loss secret, fearing that it would hurt his reputation as a musician.
What caused Beethoven’s hearing loss?
Many specialists have offered theories about the cause of Beethoven’s hearing loss. He had a progressive hearing loss, tinnitus, greater loss for high pitches, and poor speech understanding. After his death, analysis of his hair strands showed abnormally high levels of lead. We now know there is a relationship between lead exposure and hearing loss. Exposure to toxic levels of lead is the most widely accepted cause of Beethoven’s loss of hearing.
But was he deaf?
Most of the descriptions of Beethoven’s hearing describe him as becoming “totally deaf.” However, the “deafness” of the 19th century is not the deafness of today.
There were few options for treating hearing loss in Beethoven’s day. He used ear trumpets for many years. After a few years they were no longer helpful.
Today, with the advent of miniaturized microphones, micro-processors, amplifiers, and more, hearing aids and cochlear implants are successful treatments for people with severe hearing loss, including those with no hearing. Would Beethoven have benefitted from 21st century hearing aids?
Almost definitely, yes. Beethoven would have been a difficult patient. (Musicians can present a special challenge.) But he would have been someone with a hearing loss, not someone “totally deaf.” He would have heard his own music, communicated more easily with the people around him, and suffered less depression.
And if Beethoven could have used his remaining hearing— who knows what music he would have then created?