The Joy of Suffering Overcome: Young Beethoven’s Stirring Letter to His Brothers About the Loneliness of Living with Deafness and How Music Saved His Life
“Ah! how could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?”
By Maria Popova
“Blessed and blessing, this music is in some sort the equivalent of the night, of the deep and living darkness,” Aldous Huxley wrote of Beethoven’s Benedictus in his exquisite meditation on why music enchants us so. But he could have well been writing about Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827) himself — a creator suffused with darkness yet animated by the benediction of light.
Like Frida Kahlo, Beethoven sublimated a lifetime of unbearable bodily suffering to the irrepressible vitality of his creative spirit. Bedeviled by debilitating physical illness all his life — the anguishing pinnacle of which was his loss of hearing at the age of twenty-eight — he nonetheless became a servant of joy. Even Helen Keller, herself deaf and blind, conveyed the timeless transcendence of his music in her moving account of “hearing” his Ode to Joy.
The source of Beethoven’s deafness remains an enigma. Some biographers have speculated lead poisoning and others auto-immune disease, while Beethoven himself attributed it to a mysterious accident induced by rage — according to a second-hand account reported to his first serious biographer, a tenor interrupted Beethoven’s creative flow during a fit a fervent composition, which sent him into fury so violent that he, upon leaping from his desk, sustained a seizure, collapsed to the floor, and was deaf by the time he rose.
Given the mysterious onset of his hearing loss and the rudimentary state of medicine at the time, Beethoven worried that his sudden deafness might be the symptom of a fatal disease. A brilliant and ambitious young man just beginning to blossom into his genius, he was uncertain whether he would live or die — ambiguity enough to hurl even the stablest of minds into maddening anxiety.
But despite his constant struggle with physical pain and the torment of his deafness — particularly painful since until its loss his exceptional hearing had been a point of pride for him — Beethoven experienced as his greatest malady his bone-deep melancholy and its sharpest flavor of loneliness. He found his deafness “less distressing when playing and composing, and most so in intercourse with others.” Loneliness, indeed, was his basic condition from a young age, only amplified by his deafness. But it was also, as for Blake, inseparable from his genius. The feat of becoming an artist who continues to stir the human heart centuries after his own has ceased beating is all the grander against the backdrop of what Beethoven had to overcome as a creature of flesh and blood in order to serve the creative spirit.
Nowhere does that singular spirit come to life more vibrantly than in the 1927 masterwork Beethoven the Creator (public library) by the great French dramatist, novelist, essayist, and art historian Romain Rolland — not so much a standard biography but a passionately poetic portrait of the great composer and his inner world.
Adding to literature’s most beautiful writings on the power of music, Rolland channels Beethoven’s singular transcendence:
Music develops in its own elect that power of concentration on an idea, that form of yoga, that is purely European, having the traits of action and domination that are characteristic of the West: for music is an edifice in motion, all the parts of which have to be sensed simultaneously. It demands of the soul a vertiginous movement in the immobile, the eye clear, the will taut, the spirit flying high and free over the whole field of dreams. In no other musician has the embrace of thought been more violent, more continuous, more superhuman.
Rolland — who some years earlier had rallied the world’s greatest intellectuals, from Albert Einstein to Bertrand Russell to Jane Addams, to co-sign the Declaration of the Independence of the Mind — considers the independence of mind and spirit at the heart of Beethoven’s superhuman genius:
In painting his portrait, I paint that of his stock — our century, our dream, ourselves and our companion with the bleeding feet: Joy. Not the gross joy of the soul that gorges itself in its stable, but the joy of ordeal, of pain, of battle, of suffering overcome, of victory over one’s self, the joy of destiny subdued, espoused, fecundated… And the great bull with its fierce eye, its head raised, its four hooves planted on the summit, at the edge of the abyss, whose roar is heard above the time.
Beethoven belongs to the first generation of those young German Goethes … those Columbuses who, launched in the night on the stormy sea of the Revolution, discovered their own Ego and eagerly subdued it. Conquerors abuse their power: they are hungry for possession: each of these free Egos wishes to command. If he cannot do this in the world of facts, he wills it in the world of art; everything becomes for him a field on which to deploy the battalions of his thoughts, his desires, his regrets, his furies, his melancholies.
The prime condition for the free man is strength. Beethoven exalts it; he is even inclined to over-esteem it. Kraft über alles! [Power over everything!] There is something in him of Nietzsche’s superman, long before Nietzsche.
That superhuman ability to rise above malady and misfortune comes alive in a spectacular letter to Beethoven’s brothers Carl and Johann, whom he had practically raised after their father succumbed to alcoholism. Found in Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations (public library), the missive — known as the Heiligenstadt Testament — was written in early October of 1802 but intended to be read and fulfilled after his death. Thirty-two-year-old Beethoven — who, in a testament to elemental hardships of the era the absence of which we now take for granted, didn’t know his own date of birth at the time and believed he was twenty-eight — writes shortly after the completion of his Second Symphony:
Oh! ye who think or declare me to be hostile, morose, and misanthropical, how unjust you are, and how little you know the secret cause of what appears thus to you! My heart and mind were ever from childhood prone to the most tender feelings of affection, and I was always disposed to accomplish something great. But you must remember that six years ago I was attacked by an incurable malady, aggravated by unskilful physicians, deluded from year to year, too, by the hope of relief, and at length forced to the conviction of a lasting affliction (the cure of which may go on for years, and perhaps after all prove impracticable).
Born with a passionate and excitable temperament, keenly susceptible to the pleasures of society, I was yet obliged early in life to isolate myself, and to pass my existence in solitude. If I at any time resolved to surmount all this, oh! how cruelly was I again repelled by the experience, sadder than ever, of my defective hearing! — and yet I found it impossible to say to others: Speak louder; shout! for I am deaf! Alas! how could I proclaim the deficiency of a sense which ought to have been more perfect with me than with other men,–a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, to an extent, indeed, that few of my profession ever enjoyed! Alas, I cannot do this! Forgive me therefore when you see me withdraw from you with whom I would so gladly mingle. My misfortune is doubly severe from causing me to be misunderstood. No longer can I enjoy recreation in social intercourse, refined conversation, or mutual outpourings of thought. Completely isolated, I only enter society when compelled to do so. I must live like an exile. In company I am assailed by the most painful apprehensions, from the dread of being exposed to the risk of my condition being observed… What humiliation when any one beside me heard a flute in the far distance, while I heard nothing, or when others heard a shepherd singing, and I still heard nothing! Such things brought me to the verge of desperation, and wellnigh caused me to put an end to my life. Art! art alone, deterred me. Ah! how could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?
In a passage that calls to mind the wisdom of Galway Kinnell’s beautiful and life-giving poem “Wait,” written for a young friend contemplating suicide, Beethoven adds:
It is decreed that I must now choose Patience for my guide! This I have done. I hope the resolve will not fail me, steadfastly to persevere till it may please the inexorable Fates to cut the thread of my life. Perhaps I may get better, perhaps not. I am prepared for either. Constrained to become a philosopher in my twenty-eighth year! This is no slight trial, and more severe on an artist than on any one else… Oh! ye who may one day read this, think that you have done me injustice, and let any one similarly afflicted be consoled, by finding one like himself, who, in defiance of all the obstacles of Nature, has done all in his power to be included in the ranks of estimable artists and men.
After beseeching his brothers to enlist, after his death, an army surgeon of their acquaintance in describing the nature of his malady, he ends:
It was Virtue alone which sustained me in my misery; I have to thank her and Art for not having ended my life by suicide. Farewell! Love each other.
I joyfully hasten to meet Death. If he comes before I have had the opportunity of developing all my artistic powers, then, notwithstanding my cruel fate, he will come too early for me, and I should wish for him at a more distant period; but even then I shall be content, for his advent will release me from a state of endless suffering. Come when he may, I shall meet him with courage. Farewell! Do not quite forget me, even in death.
When Beethoven wrote this impassioned and anguished letter to his brothers, his greatest work was ahead of him. It would unfold over the decades to come, culminating in his crowning achievement — his ninth and final symphony, known for reasons one feels in one’s bones as the “Ode to Joy,” which gives musical form to what Rolland so memorably called “the joy of suffering overcome.”
That rebellious refusal of Beethoven’s to resign himself to his fate is what Rolland celebrates over and over in his intensely lyrical more-than-biography. In a passage that may or may not deliberately invoke the tiny bone in the ear known as the anvil — perhaps a clever play on the composer’s deafness and perhaps linguistic happenstance aided by translation — Rolland captures Beethoven’s strength of character:
The hammer is not all: the anvil also is necessary. Had destiny descended only upon some weakling, or on an imitation great man, and bent his back under this burden, there would have been no tragedy in it, only an everyday affair. But here destiny meets one of its own stature, who “seizes it by the throat,” who is at savage grips with it all the night till the dawn — the last dawn of all — and who, dead at last, lies with his two shoulders touching the earth, but in his death is carried victorious on his shield; one who out of his wretchedness has created a richness, out of his infirmity the magic wand that opens the rock.
Complement Rolland’s altogether magnificent Beethoven the Creator with Alfred Kazin on Blake, Beethoven, and the tragic genius of outsiderdom, then revisit Rolland’s contemporary and compatriot Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering.
Published February 8, 2017