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Four Composers, and the Music They Never Heard

Is there anything more fascinating than hearing the music of a composer who was deaf? Something about that idea - of creating something whose purpose is to be heard, but not by you - is fascinating, is beautiful and, in a way, is selfless. 

Furthermore, knowing of a composer's deafness adds another level to how we listen to the music. Below are four examples of composers who lost their hearing, and the music they wrote once it was gone.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Without a doubt, the most famous composer to lose his hearing was Beethoven. He started noticing the loss in his late 20s, and by his 30s he was on the verge of suicide. In a letter he wrote to his brothers in 1802, he said, "How could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed."

Despite a myriad of well-meaning but truthfully hocus-pocus attempts to reverse the hearing loss, over the years Beethoven gradually came to accept that his hearing would leave him entirely. What drove him crazy was that no one could tell him why! This was such a frusteration to Beethoven that he went so far as to request an autopsy be performed after his death, hoping the mystery might be solved posthumously. But no luck: to this day, we still do not know why Beethoven went deaf. Speculations run the gamut of course, from shruken auditory nerves, to syphilis, to definitely NOT syphilis, to lead poisoning, to genetic inheritance. But the truth? Well, it likely will never be known.

One thing is certain though: when Beethoven composed his greatest symphony, Symphony No. 9 "The Choral", he was completely deaf.

Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884)

Though the cause is disputed, Smetana's deafness was most likely the result of syphilis. And the effects were dramatic. Having had fairly normal hearing most of his life, he lost the ability to hear in his left ear in September 1874, and just one month later, the right ear had gone as well. Imagine Smetana, 50 years old, at the height of his popularity, and now completely deaf. The loss of hearing forced him to resign as director of the Prague Provisional Theatre, a tragedy in and of itself since it was a position he had fought bitterly to achieve. But his deafness did not stop Smetana from composing. In fact, his most famous work, The Moldau, was written after his sense of hearing had left him.

The music follows two streams as they grow into the mighty Moldau River, which passes by a country wedding and then through the Bohemian woods and fields as it winds its way to Prague, and beyond. Knowing that Smetana could no longer hear the sound of the Moldau, or his music, makes the nostalgia here even more palpable.

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)

In 1905, Fauré was chosen to head Paris' No. 1 music school, the Paris Conservatoire. He was extremely busy in his new post, mostly with the task of heavily reforming the school, a process which caused a lot of people to resign, and which earned him the nickname "Robespierre". He was composing a bit in the summers, listening to and judging student competitions, and holding onto a major secret. He, Gabriel Fauré, head of the Paris Conservatoire, and one of France's most respected composers, was slowly losing his hearing. High and low notes sounded garbled, and had for some years, and the middle range was gradually fading as well. But somehow during his tenure at the Conservatoire, Fauré never let on. He retired in 1920, at which point he was likely completely deaf, and turned his attentions back to composing. In his retirement, Fauré wrote his only piano trio, and his final work, his only string quartet, without the ability to physically hear either.


Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Of these four composers, only one person's hearing loss can be definitively linked to a cause. Without a doubt, Vaughan Williams had World War I to thank for his hearing loss. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a Private in 1914, then was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery, “which were responsible for the 60 pounder ‘big guns’ firing shells towards enemy lines." The prolonged exposure to these massive weapons meant that Vaughan Williams gradually began to lose his hearing. By his death in 1958, he, like Beethoven, Smetana, and Fauré before him, was also completely deaf. And despite the condition of his hearing, Vaughan Williams too continued to compose. In fact, he had a bit of an unexpected compositional resurgence in his 70's that culminated in his 9th and final symphony in 1957. And while this piece is not nearly as well known as Beethoven's 9th symphony, also written in deafness, it is fun to draw comparisons between the two.

Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.