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Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss and Discovery

Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss and Discovery
By Robin Wallace
University of Chicago Press, 229 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

Hearing is something most of us take for granted, especially if we love music. We all know that Beethoven suffered because of his hearing loss, which turned him into a near-recluse. But how did it affect his music and how he composed it? Musicology professor Robin Wallace takes on these questions and many more in his absorbing book, Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss and Discovery.

More than a biography, Hearing Beethoven flashes forward and back between Beethoven and Wallace’s late wife Barbara, who also lost her hearing in adulthood. The similarities and differences are striking. For example, while both Barbara and Beethoven suffered socially, Beethoven had an additional reason to keep his growing deafness a secret for many years: he was afraid of what his enemies would do with such compromising information. Apparently, he had many of them.

Wallace offers concise information about the ear and the physics of hearing in general. When comparing Barbara’s travails to Beethoven’s, he holds forth on the technology used by both: pocket talkers and cochlear implants for Barbara and resonators and ear trumpets for Beethoven. The author actually went to Germany to try out these pre-electronic devices and found them amazingly effective at enhancing sound.

Just as revealing is Wallace’s treatment of how Beethoven’s deafness impacted his relationship with his pianos. He experimented with French and English pianos, supposedly settling on the English Broadwood piano for its big sound. But this story is a myth, and as with other myths about Beethoven, Wallace dispels it in short order (Beethoven preferred Viennese pianos for most of his career).

And no, an oblivious Beethoven did not need to be turned around at the end of his Ninth Symphony’s premier as depicted in the film Immortal Beloved, but at the end of the scherzo movement, and Beethoven was far more aware of what was going on than is commonly understood.

Wallace searches Beethoven’s music for signs of the great man’s handicap. Wallace points to his opus 10 sonatas from 1796 as the first indication, since they emphasize the bass register more than any of his previous works. Wallace also demonstrates how Beethoven grew to compose more with his eyes than with his ears. Evidence for this assertion can be found in Beethoven’s creative notation style, which reveals a remarkable amount of musical information. Wallace further discusses the modern-sounding Grosse Fugue, since it was written when Beethoven’s deafness was complete and reveals how Beethoven was coping with his affliction.

Part biography, part eulogy, and part memoir, Hearing Beethoven is all parts a unique and fascinating account of how creative and resourceful people can deal with and overcome the tremendous problems caused by deafness.

This book review appeared in the spring 2019 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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