Hearing Beethoven – Part I

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Robert Traynor
May 4, 2011

Over the years, I have been interested in the hearing loss of the great composer Beethoven. How can a person have this degree and type of hearing impairment and still compose some of the world’s most impressive classical music. Over the next couple of weeks, Hearing International will explore the hearing loss of Beethoven.

This week will review the man and his accomplishments as well as his reaction to this hearing impairment, while next week we will explore the otologic specifics his hearing impairment. Listen to the 5 Symphony while reading, by clicking here.


Beethoven’s Hearing


Huxtable (2011) documents that Ludwig van Beethoven was born into a musical family in Bonn, Germany, in December 1770. His grandfather was the Elector of Cologne and his father was a tenor at the local court Kapelle. With the example of the young Mozart in mind, Beethoven’s father relentlessly drove his son as a musical performer. As a child, Beethoven learned to play the organ, piano, violin, and viola.

Alvarez et al (2011) discovered that Beethoven’s father was aware of the success Mozart had as a young child and wanted his son to be succssful, too. Beethoven’s father’s cruelly made young Ludwig practice for hours at a time. His dream was to have his son make the family rich.

After long nights of drinking, Beethoven’s father would sometimes drag his son out of bed to practice the piano or play for guests. Young Ludwig gave his first public performance when he was just seven years old. He gave his first public concert at the age of seven. At twelve years, he published his first composition.

Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792 to take lessons from Joseph Haydn, and within a few years was renowned both as a composer and as a performer.

Beethoven claimed he had had exceptionally keen hearing in early life. A loss of ability to hear high-pitched sounds, an indication of nerve deafness (more commonly referred to as sensorineural hearing loss), first became apparent at the age of twenty-seven. By this age, he had written his First Symphony, the first two piano concertos, the piano trios of Opus 1 and Opus 11, the piano sonatas of Opus 13, the cello sonatas of Opus 5, and most of the work on the string quartets of Opus 18. He did not admit to his deafness for another three years (Huxtable, 2011).

Although Huxtable (2011) indicates that the impairment began slowly at age 27, by age 31 he was having difficulty in conversation and other situations where hearing was important. At the Ludvig von Beethoven biographic site (2011), there are letters that document Beethoven’s discovery and frustration with the the hearing _impairment. Here are some excerpts from letters to friends:


beethoven letter

Letter of Beethoven to Franz Gerhard Wegeler, a friend from Bonn and a doctor who moved to Vienna.  The letter is dated 29 June, most probably from 1801.

Letter of Beethoven to friend Karl Amenda dated July 1, 1801:

“Know that my noblest faculty, my hearing, has greatly deteriorated…”

“…How sad is my lot, I must avoid all things that are dear to me..”

“…Oh how happy I should be if my hearing were completely restored, then I would
hurry to you…;”

“…Of course, I am resolved to rise above every obstacle, but how will it be
possible? …”

“…I beg of you to keep the matter of my deafness a profound secret to be confided
to nobody, no matter whom..”


Hearing Loss Then and Now


No matter where in the world we practice, these patient reactions and statements about hearing impairment have not changed that much since Beethoven’s time.

Of course, there were not the miraculous devices we have today and  Beethoven finally had to admit that the impairment would be with him all the rest of his life with no relief.  McCabe (1958) suggests that poor discrimination is classic for nerve deafness and it is obvious by his letters that Beethoven can hear, but not understand. 


**Tune in next week to see what the etiology of Beethoven’s hearing loss is thought to be and how Beethoven was able to compose despite having a significant hearing impairment.




Huxtable, R., (2011).
Beethoven:  A life of sound and Silence,  Molecular Interventions, Retrieved from the World Wide Web, May 4 2011:  http://molinterv.aspetjournals.org/content/1/1/8.full

Ludvig von Beethoven’s Biography (2011).  Documentation of Beethoven’s life.  Retrieved from the World Wide Web, May 4, 2011:  http://www.lvbeethoven.com/Bio/BiographyDeafness.html

McCabe, B.F. (1958).  Beethoven’s deafness. Ann. Otol. Rhinol.Laryngol. 67, 192–206.  Retrieved from the World Wide Web, May 4, 2011:  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13521635

Medical History of Beethoven, (2011),  Retrieved from the World Wide Web:  May 4, 2011:   http://www.lucare.com/immortal/med.html

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