Most people know that the famous classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven was deaf, but have you ever stopped to consider what an incredible struggle this must have been? Perhaps we imagine that Beethoven was simply a genius; we see the end of his life centuries later, and the day-to-day details are lost to us.
Imagine for a second what it must be like to sit at a piano and play, but without being able to detect a single sound from it, in front of a large and expectant crowd. Imagine, too, you live in a time before hearing aids and where there is very little understanding of what it means to be deaf. Today, Beethoven is lauded as the brilliant musician he certainly was, but somewhat lost to history is the incredible resilience and strength it took to build that legacy.watched Beethoven perform in:
We cannot imagine how it must have felt for a man so accustomed to living in a world of sound to find himself slowly slipping into a realm of involuntary silence. By the time he was 45, Beethoven’s hearing was completely gone, and there was no point in trying to perform publicly anymore. The composer, understandably, became more reclusive, and his friendship circle shrank to nothing. It wasn’t just his music that suffered – he found communication with others increasingly difficult, until it was just easier to remain isolated.
Though he stopped performing, he was still a musician and always would be. It was in his blood. It was a way of life and all he knew how to do. So, he continued to compose. Using his knowledge of music theory, his memories, and his own unique brand of creativity, Beethoven composed music that he himself would never hear.
It’s no surprise that his style changed drastically. What used to be light and playful became darker, heavier, and more contemplative. The piece of music called the “pastoral symphony” or the sixth symphony gives a fascinating peak into his mindset at this time. It is music that reflects the quietness of the countryside – a place where Beethoven had retreated in order to save his sanity. What Beethoven would prove to others is that music was a language and that, as long as he knew its syntax, he could create it, whether he had ears to hear it or not.
Today, Beethoven is held as one of the Western world’s greatest classical composers – and many of his most loved and recognizable pieces came from the darkest, most difficult period of his life. Here was a man who showed that tragedy did not have to signal an end to creativity, to brilliance, or to strength. Even though Beethoven had to face each day knowing that another tiny little piece of his hearing would be lost, never to return, he continued to create. Even though he knew he would never again experience the joy of hearing his own masterpieces played live by an orchestra, he continued to create.
Let’s not paint too rosy a picture: Beethoven was a complex character, and, in several letters written to his brother, historians find that he frequently expressed suicidal thoughts and deep despair at his own fate. Though Beethoven certainly had resilience and determination, he was also beset with feelings of embarrassment and self-pity. After being such a masterful and accomplished musician, the loss of his senses must have felt completely bewildering and disorienting. Can you imagine how cruel fate must have felt to him that it should have taken away the one sense that he most needed and cherished in life?
Often, when we think of much-admired historical heroes, we imagine that they are invulnerable. We see that they have endured much and triumphed, so we assume, wrongly, their journey was easy and that they never wavered along the way. Then, when faced with our own challenges and we feel scared, ashamed, angry or despondent, we can barely imagine that we have anything in common with these great figures from the past, who must have been magnificent masters of resilience.
But we do! This is because the most courageous and resilient among us don’t possess any secret ability that we lack. They experience all the same emotions we do, and they struggle in the same ways. The only difference is that they also choose to keep on going despite it all. They are not brave because they are invulnerable; they are brave because they are just as vulnerable as the rest of us but choose not to let that stop them.
Beethoven had a unique method for “hearing” when his own ears failed him. He’d bite down on a stick that he then pressed against the wood of the piano so he could discern its vibrations as he played. Like Shackleton, it seems that it wasn’t a question of “Should I continue to play the piano even though I am deaf?” but rather “How shall I play the piano, now that I am deaf?”
For Beethoven, then, resilience looks a lot like adaptability. His situation was unfortunate, and it hurt him considerably, but he also knew that he could always respond by making changes and adaptations and finding new solutions. Beethoven spent the rest of his life battling depression and trying to work around his disability, but work around it he did.
At the time, he must have felt like his deafness was a black spot on his career and something to be ashamed of. Isn’t it ironic then, how many people love Beethoven today, not in spite of his disability, but because of it? What he teaches us, and perhaps what his disability taught him, is that adversity really is what you make of it. We admire and respect Beethoven as a musician specifically because we recognize deep down that his suffering makes him a better musician, not a worse one. We see that he was touched, deeply, by life and its mysteries. We see that adversity can be an invitation to growth, and we see that Beethoven rose to that challenge and created something from his predicament that elevated him above it all.
When his magnum opus, Symphony no. 9, was debuted, Beethoven stood beside the conductor, observing the orchestra and keeping time in his head. Despite not being able to hear it, the entire auditorium was there with him that day, wanting him to be a part of the beautiful creation that was unfolding – his gift to the world.
When the symphony was over, Beethoven couldn’t hear the thunderous applause behind him. The conductor gently turned him so he could see. Granted, he never heard the cheers and cries of appreciation erupting from the enraptured crowd, but in that moment, he must have felt it in his very soul. He had gone beyond the mechanics of music – instead, something deeper and more profound had happened, and his music had reached beyond the ears and into the heart.An article in:
Today, this symphony (also called the “ode to joy”) is instantly recognizable to people all over the world and has been enthusiastically embraced by people across history who heard something indescribable in its composition. Beethoven once said, “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.”
This was the boy who was taught to play the piano by his father, who would have him play hours daily even before his feet could properly reach the pedals. His father was an alcoholic, who frequently beat his son or deprived him of sleep. Beethoven was a talented musician, but he never felt like a genius – he struggled at school with math and reading, dropping out of school entirely by 10. When Beethoven was young, he managed to get the church organist to teach him to play the organ for free. By the age of 12, he was already studying with composer Gottlob Neefe and composing his own pieces.
Famously, he studied under Mozart for a time, who was much impressed with his abilities, and later would be a student of Haydn. Perhaps it was his father’s early influence, but Beethoven embarked on a life characterized by non-stop learning. He was an eternal student of his craft, becoming almost obsessed with music.
As his career grew, he became known in Vienna for having a strong, determined personality. He was known as difficult to work with, careless of his appearance and often late! He once told a wealthy patron, Prince Lichnowsky, “Prince, what you are, you are through chance and birth; what I am, I am through my own labor. There are many princes and there will continue to be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven.”
Was this arrogance or just a rock-solid belief in his own abilities and his life’s purpose? Well, many claimed that, when it came to what mattered – music – he was not in the least arrogant. When his opera Fidelio flopped, he took his critics complaints and addressed them diligently. This shows us that, while he might have appeared as a diva, it was only because he was acting in service of something greater.
It was this unwavering commitment to the purity of his craft that enabled Beethoven to be the first musician of his time to write and sell music directly to publishers rather than be commissioned by the royal court. Many have claimed that Beethoven was the first “music entrepreneur” and a real innovator of his time. He was, in short, a leader, and his own belief in himself and his purpose was the source of this strength and certainty.
Many people look back at the stories of the ultra-successful and wonder, “How did they find such success, despite all the adversity they faced?” In truth, the ultra-successful have found a way to succeed because of and with their adversity. Beethoven made a success of his life, not in spite of the unique and flawed human being he was, but precisely because of it. His deafness, his relentless focus on his craft, and the desire to elevate it to glorious heights, his idiosyncrasies, the loss of his hearing – all of it was a part of the unique gift he could offer the world.
What allowed Beethoven to do what he did? What allowed him to endure his hardship and become the prolific creator of works that are still adored today?
In the same way that Shackleton found immense strength and courage in his faith, Beethoven found that same well of conviction and determination in his own vision. While deaf, Beethoven created symphonies “in his head.” But really, all innovators, creators, and dreamers create things this way. We must all hold something in our heads first, before we can bring it to life in the outside world. We will never know whether the music he created was an accurate reflection of the splendor and beauty Beethoven could imagine in his mind’s eye, but we do know that he worked tirelessly to bring his vision to life.
It's this ability to hold onto the purity of your vision that can seemingly inspire people to keep going, no matter the challenges they face. Beethoven not only had a distinct sound, but the way he conducted his life was also his own. He was a musician whose life was guided by principle and excellence. We don’t usually think of artistic integrity as a source of resilience, but think Beethoven pressed on because he knew he had something within him that he needed to share, and he would do whatever he could to get that music out there, one way or another.
Now, few of us are genius musicians like Beethoven was. We might not even consider ourselves talented in any area. Nevertheless, we all possess our own unique voice, our specific vision, and our distinctive will. Even in your darkest moments, know that you too can elevate yourself “to the divine” if you consistently try not to be just competent, merely excellent, but to push your craft to the very pinnacle of what it can be.
In the face of that as your mission, what could a few practical impediments do to stop you?
Beethoven’s story teaches us that effort can be redemptive. Hard work can ennoble us. It can give us meaning and purpose, so that if we are beset by adversity and challenges, we are more than equipped to find our way through it. If you’re not sure what “the divine” means here, all you have to do is listen to the final movements of the 9th symphony!
When we have an end goal in mind, off on the horizon, we fortify ourselves against any difficulty that plagues us in the present. We keep our eyes fixed on what could be. What else does a composer do but imagine all the beautiful things that could exist but don’t yet? If you keep reminding yourself that you can be a conduit through which new and better things can emerge, then you may find you have the same energy and conviction as Beethoven, no matter what your unique challenges are.
Real life example
Most people have heard of Aimee Mullins because of the amazing TED talk she gave – still one of TED’s most popular and inspiring. Born with a condition that required both of her legs to be amputated, Aimee never let her disability stop her. In fact, she competed against able-bodies athletes and in the Paralympics, going on to become a public speaker and even a model and actress. Aimee has some pretty astonishing words of wisdom: “The only true disability is a crushed spirit.”