By: Kimberly Brunner (04/12/17)
“Oh, I love this song.” My Grandmother smiles and turns the volume on the cassette player up. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony rolls around the room like water when it’s played aloud, every drop and rise becoming inadvertently stuck in your heart and becoming impossible to get out. It’s incredibly recognizable, and considered to be one of the composer’s greatest accomplishments. But it was also written during a period of time in Ludvig van Beethoven’s life that could be considered incredibly painful. The Ninth Symphony was first performed in 1824, and by this time, Beethoven is thought to have been almost entirely deaf.
In letters to friends, Beethoven mentioned hearing “buzzing noises” as early as 1796, and it is apparent that his hearing deteriorated swiftly. Beethoven has been diagnosed with having many different conditions affecting the delicate inner-workings of the ear since his death in 1827. But the one thing that becomes transparently clear, from the composer’s letters and statements, is that he adapted to the changing nature of his illness. He used writing as his foremost means of communication, much of which has been kept and recorded. Such records wouldn’t have been possible without this forced means of communication.
In addition to adapting his lifestyle, Beethoven continued to adapt his music in order that he could continue composing it. It’s been noted that his style of writing changed to include more notes in the lower scale, as he could no longer hear the higher notes, which made them nearly impossible for him to play correctly. Finally, in 1814, Beethoven played his last public performance. “Archduke Trio,” known formally as Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat major, was to be his last public song. And despite the impact his deafness reportedly had on his playing, Beethoven went through with the performance and finished it, triumphant in spirit if not in skill.
This, the triumph of Beethoven’s spirit, is one of the reasons I loved his story so much. Even into his years of deafness, which might’ve stopped some musicians, Beethoven continued to compose music that, to this day, brings great joy to those that hear it. His refusal to surrender to defeat has had lasting ramifications. Being a Christian, I am reminded of the verse in Romans, Chapter Five, which says, “Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Beethoven certainly struggled in his later years, and I imagine that he found his share of despair. But when one listens to the Ninth Symphony, caught up in it’s beauty and it’s movement, one cannot help but feel a spirit of hope that lingers there. It is music. Glorious, strong music that was composed by a man who, despite great pain and trail, refused to give up on something that he clearly loved. His determination, and his endurance, are a great testimony to those who can hear, and to those who cannot. I remember this every time I hear the Ninth Symphony fill a room, and I will proceed to turn up the volume as I remember the man who created it.