Healing Beethoven?

by Robin Wallace

When my late wife, Barbara, passed away in 2011, after eight and a half years of profound deafness, one person in my church told me that her first thought on hearing the news was, “Now she can hear again.” I couldn’t help wondering if there was a different way to think about things. Imagine heaven as a place where being deaf would not be the profound handicap it is on earth, because everyone else there would know exactly how to accommodate a deaf person’s needs, or those of people with other disabilities.

In fact, many with disabilities resent the widespread societal assumption that they should want to be cured. This fact poses significant theological challenges that need to be squarely addressed.

Historically speaking, we are at a threshold in our understanding of disability. Around the time of Beethoven a medical model became widely accepted, according to which the goal was to cure or overcome the disability. It is hardly a coincidence that Beethoven has come to be seen as a classic example of the medical model as applied to deafness. Although medical interventions did not provide him much help, some of his best-known compositions can seem to trace a personal story of overcoming adversity. The widespread acceptance of this view, I believe, has limited our understanding of Beethoven’s life and work.

Most members of the Deaf community — Deaf with a capital D to indicate that those in this community understand deafness as a cultural identity — are skeptical about medical interventions, like the cochlear implants that Barbara received after losing her hearing. I have found, though, that both Deaf people and disability scholars are becoming more open to medical intervention even as it is becoming widely understood that such interventions do not offer a cure. Our theological understanding of disability, I would suggest, needs to be open to similar nuance.

As Bethany McKinney Fox notes in her book Disability and the Way of Jesus, the healing stories in the Bible have at least two dimensions. On the one hand, the healings resemble medical interventions, although nothing like modern technological medicine is involved. On the other hand, the stories are accounts of personal interaction. Without exception they involve an encounter between a healer and another person, and the people involved bring different needs and perspectives to the table.

From his experience working with cognitively disabled people at l’Arche, Jean Vanier learned that healing flows both ways, and that human community is enhanced when we embrace those who are marginalized, even if their underlying condition does not change.

In musical terms, this suggests that we should not wonder at how Beethoven overcame his deafness, or indeed, how any other great artist with a disability manages to thrive in spite of it. Rather, foremost in our minds as we approach their stories should be the question of what they uniquely have to offer. The idea that Beethoven was a better composer because he was deaf seems counterintuitive, but it meshes well with biblical narratives in which powerful insights are given to those seemingly least likely to receive them.

Beethoven, it is often suggested, used his music to tell a story of overcoming adversity. The consequences of this idea for our understanding of music — and not just classical music — are impossible to overestimate. But it is not the whole story. In fact, from the point of view of present-day disability advocacy, it is highly problematic.

In my book Hearing Beethoven, which is based on my experiences with Barbara and my lifelong study of Beethoven’s music, I sought to establish a more humane way of understanding the composer’s response to his deafness. What made deafness particularly challenging for Barbara was not just the inadequacy of medical interventions. It was, rather, the apparent inability of other people to adjust to her limitations. Such challenges are regularly faced as well by people with autism and other conditions that make it difficult for them to fit in. Disabled people may be reluctant to go to church because they fear feeling excluded, or that their attendance would place too much of a burden on others.

Perhaps less obviously, whenever one of the biblical healing stories is read from the pulpit, some disabled people hold their breath to see whether it will be interpreted in a way that stigmatizes them by suggesting that their disability makes them less than whole. They may find themselves sitting through sermons in which they are chided for their lack of faith or told that conditions like theirs are a judgment from God. Clearly a less black-and-white understanding of the nature of disability and healing would benefit both them and the church. Such an understanding might begin with a more nuanced understanding of what disabled people like Beethoven have accomplished.

In Hearing Beethoven, I argue that deafness shaped Beethoven’s music in ways that are central to his widely recognized personal style. In terms of Beethoven’s influence on later music, the most significant of these is his use of short, highly recognizable, frequently repeated motives. While observing how Barbara learned to hear again after receiving a cochlear implant, I noted that small, definable units of sound were much easier for her to process than longer, less predictable ones. This was particularly true of music; a piece she recognized would begin to sound right as soon as she recognized what it was. A short, highly recognizable melody was relatively easy for her to identify.

Beethoven’s melodic building blocks tend to be short and memorable. The worse his hearing got, the more he depended on frequent, almost obsessive repetition of such material. It is as though he was composing with the specific challenges of hearing loss in mind. The rhythmic quality of his writing can even be seen in his sketches. The result was a powerful musical style that can seem to tell a story of overcoming adversity.

Paradoxically, the emphasis on the heroic style in Beethoven reception has obscured what I believe is a more important way in which Beethoven can be said to have healed himself in his music — or perhaps I should say, the way in which Beethoven used music to open himself to healing. Difficulty hearing and composing music was not the most devastating effect of hearing loss for Beethoven; in fact, by making small adjustments beginning in his twenties, he was able to hear music adequately for far longer than is generally recognized. The more immediate crisis he faced had to do with social isolation and depression.

In response, I suggest, Beethoven brought healing to himself by broadening his music’s emotional range and dynamism. Heroic affirmation was only one of the many moods he showed music to be capable of expressing. In the works of his middle years — not to mention those of his final decade — he also thoroughly explored tragic anger, mystical relaxation, capricious frivolity, and effortless transition between these and other emotional states too numerous and varied to be described in words. The result was a dawning awareness of music’s full expressive potential: an awareness that enabled the coming century of Romantic music and that in many ways is still with us today. But it also marked a spiritual awakening on Beethoven’s part. He deepened and enriched his emotional life, and in so doing enriched ours as well.

A series of recent experiments brings the problems involved in treating disability into sharp relief. Scientists have been working for several years with mice who carry a dominant gene that causes them to go deaf by the age of six months: roughly equivalent to the mid-twenties in human terms. Through genetic engineering, researchers have had considerable success in preventing this from happening. Not surprisingly, these experimental subjects have come to be known as Beethoven mice.

Let us suppose for a moment that Beethoven’s deafness was genetic, and that modern medicine could have stopped or reversed it. Would or should we go back in history and make Beethoven a happier but less important and influential composer? The question is rhetorical, of course, but the issues it raises aren’t. Most of us would probably agree that if we could alter a gene that causes deafness, let alone a life-threatening condition like Huntington’s disease, we should at least be able to choose to do so. But our humanity is nourished by diversity, by encountering people with experiences different from our own, and by seeing value in those whom others often write off as ill or incompetent. If all disability were magically cured, would the result be a heaven in which people like my late wife could hear again, or would it be a world made poorer for the loss of their voices? My intention is not to resolve such paradoxes but to raise them. In the tension of these contradictions, I believe we can find both God and the freedom to think for ourselves about what is most important and most deeply human. And for that I am grateful.

Robin Wallace, Professor of Musicology, has taught at Baylor University since 2003. Dr. Wallace received his A.B. from Oberlin College and his M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Yale University. Prior to Baylor he taught at the Petrie School of Music at Converse College. Dr. Wallace is the author most recently of Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss and Discovery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), a probing study of Beethoven’s deafness based partly on his experience with his late wife Barbara. He is also the author of Take Note: An Introduction to Music through Active Listening, an introductory textbook published by Oxford University Press. He is an authority on the critical reception of the music of Beethoven, which is the subject of his first published book. His publications also include numerous journal articles, reviews, book chapters, and translations of early 19th-century Beethoven reviews.

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Chelle Stearns

Chelle Stearns

Associate Professor of Theology at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology