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Opinion This holiday season, we can all learn a lesson from Beethoven

(Daniel Fishel/for The Washington Post)

“For the last three years my hearing has grown steadily weaker . . . in the theatre I have to get very close to the orchestra to understand the performers, and . . . from a distance I do not hear the high notes of the instruments and the singers’ voices.”

These are the words of Ludwig van Beethoven in 1801, when he was 30. His 249th birthday is this week.

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Beethoven was, as we now know, going deaf. Already quite famous as a pianist and composer, he had for several years experienced buzzing and ringing in his ears; by 1800, his hearing was in full decline. The problem thereafter worsened by the year, and it became clear to him and those around him that there was no hope of remission. But what happened as a result changed the world of music, and holds a lesson for us more than two centuries later.

For a long time, Beethoven raged against his decline, insisting on performing, with worse and worse results. To be able to hear his own playing, he banged on pianos so forcefully that he often left them wrecked. “In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled,” wrote his friend and fellow composer Ludwig Spohr. “I was deeply saddened at so hard a fate.”

Beethoven confided in friends that without sound, his life would be meaningless. One close to him wrote of his laments: “It is a cry of revolt and of heart-rending pain — one cannot hear it but be shaken with pity. He is ready to end his life; only moral rectitude keeps him back.”

He finally gave up performing as his deafness progressed but found ways to keep composing. His housekeepers noticed that he would try to feel the timbre of notes on the piano by putting a pencil in his mouth and touching it to the soundboard while he played. When his hearing was partial, he apparently avoided using notes with the frequencies he could not hear. A 2011 analysis in the British Medical Journal shows that high notes (above 1568 Hz) made up 80 percent of his string quartets written in his 20s but dropped to less than 20 percent in his 40s.

In the last decade of Beethoven’s life (he died at 56), his deafness was complete, so music could reside only in his imagination. That meant the end of his compositional career, right? Wrong, of course. During that period, Beethoven wrote the music that would define his unique style, change music permanently and give him a legacy as one of the greatest composers of all time.

Entirely deaf, Beethoven wrote his best string quartets (with more high notes than in works from the previous decade), his magisterial “Missa Solemnis” and his greatest triumph of all, the Ninth Symphony. He insisted on conducting the latter piece’s premier (although legend has it there was a second conductor in the wings whom the orchestra was actually following). After the performance, unaware of the thunderous ovation, Beethoven was physically turned by one of the musicians to see the jubilant audience members on their feet after hearing what has come to be regarded by many as the greatest orchestral piece ever written.

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.”

Deafness freed Beethoven as a composer because he no longer had society’s soundtrack in his ears. Perhaps therein lies a lesson for each of us. I know, I know: You’re no Beethoven. But as you read the lines above, maybe you could relate to the great composer’s loss in some small way. Have you lost something that defined your identity? Maybe it involves your looks. Or your social prestige. Or your professional relevance.

How might this loss set you free? You might finally define yourself in new ways, free from the boundaries you set for yourself based on the expectations of others. For example, as you age, what if you lean in to the “declines’’ — really just natural changes — and use your wisdom more than your beauty and wits? What if you turn your energy from impressing strangers to being completely present with the people you love?

It would be naive to think that Beethoven fully appreciated the artistic freedom his deafness granted him. I can imagine Beethoven went to his grave regretting his loss of hearing, because it cost him his beloved career as a fine pianist. He did not know the extent to which his radical new compositional style — heard only by others — would define him as truly great for hundreds of years after his death. Maybe he had a clue, however. It is significant that his Ninth Symphony closes triumphantly with lines from Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy”: “Joy! A spark of fire from heaven, / Daughter from Elysium, / Drunk with fire we dare to enter, / Holy One, inside your shrine. / Your magic power binds together, / What we by custom wrench apart, / All men will emerge as brothers, / Where you rest your gentle wings.”

This holiday season, perhaps we can all learn a lesson from the life of the great Beethoven. Take time to listen to the Ninth and give deep thought to the changes in your own life. You might not revolutionize music, but maybe you will discover joy in the freedom that can come from losing something, but allowing yourself to grow.

Read more from Arthur C. Brooks's archive.

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