Did Beethoven’s Deafness Change Music Forever?

A composer with hearing loss thinks so.

Gabriela Lena Frank, a composer and pianist and the founder of the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, was born with high-moderate/near-profound hearing loss. In an interview with Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim in The New York Times, she described her exploration of the music of Beethoven, who gradually lost his hearing and by his 40s was almost totally deaf. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

From the time I was a little girl, I have been fascinated with how deafness affected Beethoven. If you look at his piano sonatas, in that first one in F Minor, the hands are very close together and the physical choreographies of the left and right hands are not that dissimilar. As he gets older, the activity of the hands become more dissimilar in his piano work, and farther apart.

The progression over the course of the sonatas — a musical document of his hearing loss in transition — is not perfectly linear by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s undeniable. By the time of the “Waldstein” Sonata, not only are the hands far apart, but they are doing very different things: that left hand pounding in thick chords against the right hand’s spare little descending line, for instance.

Well, I recall from my therapy classes for hearing-impaired children that I was taught to recognize thick from thin. My therapist had me close my eyes and indicate from which direction a rumbly drum was coming, as opposed to a high-pitched whistle. I couldn’t really hear them, but I could certainly feel them and their contrasting energies.

I think it’s fascinating, too, that as Beethoven’s hands stretched for lower and higher notes, he demanded pianos with added notes, elongating the pitch range of the keyboard; he asked for physically heavier instruments that resonated with more vibration.

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