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Jessica Duchen
Wednesday 8th September 2010
Beethoven Moments

Poor Michael Berkeley - a brilliant composer facing what we hope very much is only a temporary loss of his hearing - has written a fascinating piece about his experience. Required reading for all fans of Berkeley, Beethoven and Stravinsky (who didn't lose his hearing, but features strongly) - and also for anyone who still likes to turn up the rock music volume too high. A salutory lesson lies therein. And hearing loss, as Berkeley points out, isn't only about 'loss', it's also, and probably more disturbingly, about distortion of sounds.

Beethoven wasn't the only great composer who lost his hearing; Fauré also went deaf, losing hearing gradually from middle age until by his last years nothing was left. His son, who wrote an important book about him, explains that this malady affected the pitch at which Fauré was able to register notes: high notes sounded about a third too low and low ones pulled similarly in the opposite direction, while the middle range would be in tune, but faint. Fauré complained, too, of "noises that don't exist...sounds that split in two, an appalling din." He wrote to his wife:

"I'm knocked sideways by this disease which has attacked the very part of me I needed to keep intact. It's disrespectful, or at least ill-judged, to compare myself with Beethoven. The second half of his life was nothing but despair! There are passages of music and isolated timbres which I simply can't hear at all."

Deafness is one of the most devastating prospects that any musician can face and we wish Michael the speediest possible recovery.

Here's some light relief: an amazing story about Beethoven's deafness that Krystian Zimerman told during our Royal Festival Hall pre-concert interview a couple of years ago.

Beethoven, Krystian related, developed a rather extraordinary means of by-passing his damaged ears. He would rest a thin wooden stick against the piano keyboard and place the other end against his teeth; the vibrations of the sound would be conveyed through the connecting bones within his head and could have led him to "hear" if not exactly better then maybe more minutely than most of us.

Krystian, who was playing Beethoven's Op.111, had been intrigued by that story and wanted to see, or hear, for himself the effects of such a system. He's a nocturnal individual and likes to work at the piano in the middle of the night (yes, he does have a soundproofed studio), so he tried it out at 3am, donning a motorbike helmet to simulate hearing loss. So when his wife looked in to see what he was up to, there he was in a helmet bending over the piano with a stick between his teeth and the keys...

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Charlie Griffith
September 8th, 2010
8:09 PM
I'll bet the disease in question here is tinnitus. Our contemporary teenagers with those stupid ear-bud things blasting pulsating frequencies in search of some sort of sonic orgasm are in for a very uncomfortable future. But, they won't listen(!) to sensible advice, will they?

September 8th, 2010
5:09 PM
Evelyn Glennie plays barefoot - to get the vibrations through her feet

Bill H.
September 8th, 2010
3:09 PM
Don't forget Smetana! He had to finish "Ma Vlast", his string quartet and "Libuse" while deaf.

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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