When Composers Lose Their Hearing (1989)
“The Anatomy of Melancholy”: What could make the heart heavier than a singing or ringing in the ears that disturbs the thought processes of a musician? Can a more terrible fate be imagined for a composer and the loss of his hearing? Among the five senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch—the proper functioning of the ears must surely be the most crucial for one whose life is centered on the art of sound.
The composer who cannot hear the actual production of tones is deprived of experiencing his work in performance, cannot know the wonderful surprises and fresh insights a fine performer may bring to his piece. To be “hard of hearing” is disability enough; but paradoxically it may be worse for a performer (who must be concerned with intonation, timing, balance and dynamics) than it is for a composer. Thus when Smetana appeared at the keyboard in his own piano trio five years after he became deaf, he shocked the audience at one point by loudly admonishing his colleagues to play pianissimo; he heard in his mind how the music should sound, but was unaware of the power of his own voice.
To the person born blind, the concept of blue and red are inconceivable and indescribable; to the person born deaf, music can be represented only buy a set a visual symbols, either in written notes or as graphic art. Music is by nature nonverbal; you cannot “sign” a musical composition. It is evident that for an individual born without the faculty of hearing, developing a musical performing skill is most improbable, and nurturing a creative musical talent virtually impossible. But if the ability to hear was there during childhood and adolescence, can the gift of musical creativity continue?
It can, and it does. It is imagination, the soundless representation of musical phenomena in the mind, that makes it possible. The term “inner ear” need not be taken only in a physiological sense, as in an infection striking that part of the organ. Inner ear or inner hearing also implies an act of the imagination and of the memory, which may not be damaged by the physical disability but possibly even enhanced by it.
We may be permitted, for this essay, to omit discussion of the medical causes which can lead to deafness among the great composers; not infrequently it was untreated or maltreated venereal disease that inevitably led to it. What concerns us here is the way such a catastrophe can be fought or even overcome.
Was it entirely outrageous when Charles Ives once exclaimed, in obvious exasperation, “For heaven’s sake, what has sound to do with music? “He may well have focused his eccentric thinking on a curious paradox: Musical imagination—and even musical creation—can occur even when there is no tangible sound at all. Audible sound, perhaps; since sound is an abstraction of acoustical frequencies, it cannot really be tangible. All of us who are musical can hear music “soundlessly.” Some of us can “perform” whole symphonies in our conscious minds, albeit with some flubs, omissions, contractions and breaks of continuity. We hear the sound even if we do not physically experience it. (Similarly, our visual memory can put a painting before our “inner eye.”) We can re-create in our minds a Solti performance at one moment, a Szell performance at another, and compare them. The voices of Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti are distinctly different from each other, as well as from all others, and as we conjure them up, our musical memory clearly retains that difference. We “audibilize” as easily as we visualize.”
The accomplished conductor can “hear” a score that is put in front of him. The sonic image he forms from that reading and from continuing to study is what he brings to the first rehearsal. His inner hearing and precise imagining of the sound will then be put to the test acoustically. There may be some surprises, but not too many. I recall once showing a new score by a composer colleague to Leopoldo Stokowski, and making the error of saying: “I have a tape, if you are interested.” The great conductor bristled at that: “I can read a score, you know,” he said—and that was the end of the proposal. An architect, similarly, can read a blueprint—not only his own but someone else’s, and “see” the building in his mind’s eye. The symbols are literally graphic; they tell the professional what he needs to know, and what has to be brought to life in steel, bricks and mortar, or in actual sound.
The traveling pianist who takes with him or her a silent keyboard on which to practice on tour not only keeps his fingers limber but also hears the piece that is being prepared. Again, musical memory and musical imagination are at the root of all physical action.
Thus it is also possible for the composer to shape his musical images in his mind’s ear, even if he or she cannot double check them on the keyboard or in life performance. Every great master, even one who is accustomed to working at the piano (as Beethoven and Stravinsky were), also hears “inside.” Composers who could write in horse-drawn carriages (like Mozart) or on trains and planes (like Hindemith and Milhaud) would also agree with the gist of Charles Ives’ paradoxical question. Once the composer has known and mastered the craft and art of composing (which means “putting sounds together”), he or she may also be able to create new images and shapes, new and as-yet-unheard sounds and concepts. His art, indeed, may grow in depth and quality rather than diminish once it is perforce transferred “inside.”
Musical history tells us that this is so. Beethoven began to have difficulties with his hearing in his late 20s. By the time of his second symphony, when he was 31, he complained of intermittent “humming and buzzing,” especially in his left ear. By his mid 40s, his hearing was almost totally lost; there remained only traces of it to the end of his life at 56. But it was as biographer Maynard Solomon has written: “Beethoven’s defeats were turned into victories. His loss of hearing was in some obscure sense necessary (or at least useful) to the fulfillment of his creative quest.” It was in his last decade that Beethoven wrote the last piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, The Ninth Symphony, the last quartets. The musical sound was that of his “inner voices;” and what he gave to others to perform was the greatest he had yet imagined. Thrown back upon his deepest musical resources, he mined the rarest of musical metals and invented new and powerful amalgams. One must ask: Had he been able to hear as did other men, would he have shared so much, striven so high, explored so deeply?
The story of Beethoven’s courageous battle against his affliction has often been told. We know about his ear trumpet, his conversation box that made social contact possible, his growing alienation and eccentricity. He gave us a vivid picture of his state of mind in the moving “Heiligenstadt Testament,” written at the very moment when he composed the joyful and outgoing Second Symphony. The reality of life and reality of art have rarely been so dramatically juxtaposed. It was a poetic, not an actual, suicide note. Dr. Solomon calls it “a leave taking” which is to say, a fresh start. Beethoven here enacted his own death in order that he might live again. He re-created himself in the new guise, self-sufficient and heroic. And quite soon he set out on what he called a “new road”: it was his Third Symphony, the Eroica.
Among other great composers similarly afflicted was Smetana. In 1874, at the age of 50, and 10 years before his death, he suffered sudden hearing loss and vertigo; the progress of his illness was rapid. Yet it was during that last decade (which ended in the Prague asylum for the insane) that Smetana wrote the entire great cycle of tone poems entitled Ma Vlast (“My Country”). It was only when the disease had taken too heavy a toll on his mind that composing became unmanageable, and the final works remains incomplete or on a lower level than his masterpieces.
In 1877, three years after disaster struck him, Smetana wrote: “when I plunge into musical ecstasy, then for a while I forget everything that persecutes me so cruelly in my old age.” In his own commentary for his First String Quartet of 1876, called “From My Life,” Smetana accounted for the autobiographical aspects of the music: He could treat national Bohemian elements with joy “until the catastrophe overwhelmed me—the beginning of my deafness, with the prospect of so wretched a future . . . That long drawn-out note in the finale is the fatal whistling in my ear in the highest register. I permitted myself this little joke, such as it is, because it was so disastrous to me. There is a little ray of hope in a passing improvement, but, remembering all the promise of my early career, there comes a feeling of painful regret.” Ma Vlast, in all its splendor, was yet to come. Smetana could see applause, but could not hear it.
We recall the touching story of Beethoven’s unawareness of the ovation that followed the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, until one of the soloists turned him around to see the cheering crowd. His own time-beating during the performance could not really be followed; the man who actually conducted stood behind him, as unobtrusively as possible. We know what Beethoven heard in his mind—even if it had little relation to what the audience was hearing.
The recognition that came to Faure late in life was, according to his biographer Jean-Michel Nectoux, “overshadowed by growing deafness. Still worse, the general weakening of his hearing was compounded by a systematic distortion that produced a ‘veritable cacophony’—high sounds were heard a third lower, low sounds a third higher, while the middle of the range remained correct.” During Faure’s last two years, the author continues in The New Grove, he suffered from declining health, with increasing symptoms of sclerosis, poor breathing (due to heavy smoking) and deafness. But again, masterpieces came about under such conditions, including the Piano Trio and the String Quartet. Moreover, Faure remained a friend—an active mentor to two younger composers during that time.
The kind of inner musical turmoil that troubled Faure and Smetana also affected Schumann. Although he never actually became deaf, he suffered severely from “auricular delusions,” that is to say, sounds that were not only imaginary but frightening. When Dr. Peter Ostwald, in his suburb psychiatric biography of Schumann, subtitled the book “The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius,” he used the term in both its positive and negative aspects. The voices that spoke to Schumann could at times inspire a tone-poet and sensitive artist, but could at other times appear in horrifying guises. Sometimes they told him brutally of his own inadequacies and failures. Schumann’s natural “heaviness of heart” was exacerbated by what his wife Clara described as “a constant singing and rushing in his ears, with every noise turning into a tone.” The composer himself spoke of his hearing being “peculiarly out-of-tune.” Dr. Ostwald offers various diagnoses, among them acute labyrinthitis or Ménière’s Disease. This is not the place to discuss the probable causes for Schumann’s progressive mental illness, which was probably a combination of schizophrenic and manic depressive features of long standing. But it is clear that when Schumann’s “auditory disturbances” escalated into psychotic hallucinations, the act of rational putting together of notes became impossible. Neurosis may not destroy creativity; psychosis will.
Medical technology today is making great strides in aiding the hearing impaired. Forms of deafness that do not involve the auditory nerves now have a better chance of cure or at least improvement. And even though “mind over matter” can be for a composer the most potent of therapies, not for a moment would one wish to downgrade the disaster that deafness represents for the creative musician. It takes an extraordinary perestroika of attitude to deal with it; but if the psychological hurtle can be overcome, the physical obstacle may not be fatal to the creative process. It is clear that what the composer going deaf needs primarily is to preserve not the last shred of his hearing, but the crucial fabric of his sanity. The silence that envelops him is alive with sound. Nobody has described with keener perception and sympathy what it is that can really happen—if the body and mind permit—than Dr. Frederick Dorian in his book of 1947 “The Musical Workshop”: “A merciful muse has shown the artist the way out of his misery. The dark forces of distraction which endanger his psychic existence can be fought through the creative act. Enslaved by his unhappiness, threatened with doom, the artist revolts and sets himself free through work.”