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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

Lisztomania: Sound in Silence

I’ve always found it somewhat ironic that Ludwig van Beethoven, objectively one of the greatest composers of all-time, went deaf in adulthood. To think that he could not hear his own music physically pains me, but it also makes me think: Was it Beethoven’s deafness that allowed him to become so great? Many historians and orchestral music lovers criticize Beethoven for not being able to write melodies, but in my opinion, the real reason that Beethoven should be celebrated as a composer is for his revolutionary musical ideas, not the melodies he did or did not write.

Beethoven was born in 1770 in Germany during the early years of the Classical era of composition. He was crucial in the transition between the Classical and Romantic periods of music and, for the purpose of this analysis, I will divide his music into three distinct periods. His earliest compositions, grouped up until 1803, were strongly influenced by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn and other Classical era composers. The next period, from 1803 until 1814, was when Beethoven began going deaf and includes several large heroic works such as his famous Symphony No. 5. His final period lasted until his death in 1827, and consists of works full of expression and depth but also works that Beethoven never heard.

Before his deafness, Beethoven’s compositions were extremely Classical in nature, with dissonance — sections of harmony in which the notes create extreme tension and seem to clash — used very sparingly. This music was all very pleasing to the ear, and because of its similarity to the music of other composers of the time, really did not set Beethoven apart from his contemporaries. As his hearing began to decline in the first few years of the 19th century, Beethoven used his music as a coping mechanism. Being someone whose entire life revolved around music, this gentle deterioration of his hearing must have been maddening. It is likely that Beethoven was aware that his hearing would, at some point, disappear entirely and prevent him from hearing any of his work. This knowledge most likely motivated Beethoven to make extreme leaps in the field of composition, including the usage of musical motifs — short musical “ideas” or melodic fragments that are recurring in a larger work — , complex instrumentation and more dissonant passages leading to heroically beautiful resolutions of harmony, all of which may never have been pioneered had he kept his hearing. The entire Romantic movement of music stemmed from Beethoven, so had he not gone deaf, it is very probable that the direction of music could have taken a very different turn.


Suggested listening — works of Beethoven:

Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F Major (1798)

Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” (1804)

Piano Concerto No. 4 (1806)

Symphony No. 7 (1812)

Symphony No. 9 “Choral” (1817)

Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major (1821)