Then let us all do what is right, strive with all our might toward the unattainable, develop as fully as we can the gifts God has given us, and never stop learning!
— Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the most respected and influential composers of all time. Year after year, his symphonies are the top-rated listeners’ choice on classical stations like WCPE (an outstanding, 100% independent, listener-supported, commercial-free, 24/7 classical music station, by the way!).
Beethoven first gained public attention when he was only eight years old as a virtuoso pianist, but of course, it was his glorious skill as a composer that made him a giant for the ages.
But it wasn’t easy. In his mid-twenties, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. He suffered a severe form of tinnitus, a “ringing” in his ears that made it hard for him to hear or enjoy music. He avoided conversation and became increasingly reclusive and despondent in his later life. While he lived in the small Austrian town of Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna, he wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament, revealing his agony over the loss of the most important facility a musician can have. He even contemplated suicide.
Over time, his hearing loss became profound and in the final decade of his life, he was completely deaf. By the first performance of his Ninth Symphony in 1824, he was unable, of course, to conduct. But he did stand next to the conductor during the performance to indicate the proper tempi. The performance was tremendous, and was received with a great deal of emotion, not only by the audience but, more unusually, by the orchestra (some of the players reportedly wept).
Well. Really. How could they have not:
One of Beethoven’s most respected biographers, Sir George Grove (1820-1900), described the scene:
music, heard nothing of it all and was not even sensible of the
applause of the audience at the end of his great work, but
continued standing with his back to the audience, [and beating
that time,] till Fraulien Ungher, who had sung the contralto part,
turned him, or induced him to turn around and face the people,
who were still clapping their hands, and giving way to the
greatest demonstrations of pleasure.
His turning around, and
the sudden conviction thereby forced on everybody that he had
not done so before [because he could not hear what was going
on,] acted like an electric shock on all present, and a volcanic
explosion of sympathy and admiration followed, which was
repeated again and again, and seemed as if it would never end.
Today, as a random act of kindness, celebrate the great gift of hearing. Sometimes the greatest kindness you can give is to simply listen.
Water crystal that has been exposed to the music of Beethoven
Lend an ear to someone going through a tough time. Listen without judging, and without feeling compelled to fix anything or advise. Today, if you ask someone, “How are you?” listen fully and carefully to the response. Call or visit someone who doesn’t get a lot of company (like an elderly neighbor or a nursing home senior), and encourage them to tell their stories to you.
Share a favorite CD with someone. Learn how to use American Sign Language. Sing with your kids. Fill your home with beautiful music.
And then spend some time in silence, listening to the music of your own spirit.