German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven is considered one of the greatest composers in Western music history.
But as with many composers, Beethoven’s life was marked by an array of challenges. If he had never learned to work around them or overcome them, though, he may not have written his life’s greatest works.
So, was Beethoven deaf and blind? In short, Beethoven lost most of his hearing by his 40s, but was never blind.
Let's look at exactly what happened.
Was Beethoven Deaf?
Beethoven was not deaf upon birth. His hearing suffered a gradual decline from 1798 onwards (in his 20s), according to Beethoven himself.
The cause is thought to be otosclerosis and degeneration of the auditory nerve. Beethoven also suffered from severe tinnitus as his hearing was failing.
Beethoven wrote his friends about the symptoms he was experiencing and how they were making life in social and professional settings difficult for him, as early as 1801. He considered them a curse for a composer.
(The greatest curse may have ultimately been alcoholism, for reasons we’ll discuss later.)
His doctor advised him to move to a small Austrian town. It was there that he wrote what would become the Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his brothers detailing his thoughts of suicide. Beethoven would never send the letter, but it was discovered posthumously.
Beethoven did not stop composing, even as he was growing deaf. But playing concerts did become a challenge. He started becoming more socially withdrawn.
Some believe Beethoven could still hear speech and music normally up until 1812. He lost most of his hearing by the time he was in his mid-40s.
He never became totally deaf, however, as he was still able to hear sudden loud sounds and low tones, even in his final years.
Was Beethoven Blind?
No, Beethoven did not go blind in his lifetime. He was not born blind, and he did not become blind later in life.
This is a very frequently asked question, and we suspect it might be because “deaf” and “blind” can sometimes sound like the same thing (of course, they aren’t). Make no mistake – Beethoven was not deaf and blind, although he may have had to use eyeglasses later in life.
Beethoven did begin losing his hearing in his 20s, however, and by the time he was in his mid-40s, he could not hear save for low tones and loud sounds, though some say he was completely deaf by then.
How Old Was Beethoven When He Started Losing His Hearing?
Beethoven was about 26 when he began hearing buzzing and ringing in his ears.
As a 30-year-old, he wrote a letter to a childhood friend who had become a doctor, indicating that he had to get very close to the orchestra to understand what they were doing. From a distance, he was not able to hear singers or high notes and said he had trouble hearing softer speakers.
For a while, Beethoven kept his growing deafness a secret from others, thinking it might ruin his career (though it ultimately didn’t). He avoided most social gatherings for the same reason.
Did Beethoven Become Depressed As He Was Losing His Hearing?
All signs point to “yes.”
Although he never sent the letter to his brothers, he did document his thoughts of suicide in writing.
By 1810, Beethoven had largely become socially withdrawn (which is the tendency of the depressed), though he did compose some of his most admired works during this period – piano sonatas, symphonies, chamber music, and more.
His late string quartets, including the Grosse Fuge, would be among the final works he would complete between 1825 and 1826.
Did Beethoven Continue Performing Even After He Knew That He Was Going Deaf?
It was his career, after all, so he certainly attempted to. But he would bang on the pianos so hard to be able to hear the notes, the pianos would end up wrecked! And this didn’t exactly get him good press, though it may have earned him some sympathy.
What Pieces Of Music Did Beethoven Compose While Deaf?
Amazingly, some of Beethoven’s most famous and celebrated works were composed after he had become deaf. Consider the following:
Piano Sonata No. 14
Also known as Moonlight Sonata, a name that stuck after Beethoven passed away.
The piece was completed in 1801 and was dedicated to Countess Julie “Giulietta” Guicciardi, one of his students.
Piano Sonata No. 14 is one of Beethoven’s most popular piano compositions, and it was popular even while he was alive.
Piano Sonata No. 29
Piano Sonata No. 29 is known more broadly as Hammerklavier. Hammerklavier is considered one of Beethoven’s most important works and has even been named one of the greatest piano sonatas of all time.
Hammerklavier was completed in 1818, and if nothing else, it is one of Beethoven’s most technically involved compositions.
The Ruins of Athens
The Ruins of Athens was written by Beethoven to accompany the play of the same name, written by German dramatist and writer August von Kotzebue.
The Turkish March is probably the best-known theme in all the pieces written for The Ruins of Athens.
The Diabelli Variations were written by Beethoven between 1819 and 1823 as a set of piano variations. Many consider it one of the greatest sets of variations for the keyboard besides Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
Austrian pianist, composer, poet, author, and lecturer Alfred Brendel described the Diabelli Variations as the greatest piano works of all time.
Beethoven composed the Missa Solemnis, as a Solemn Mass, from 1819 to 1823. The Missa Solemnis is considered by many to be one of Beethoven’s greatest musical achievements.
Symphony No. 9
Symphony No. 9 is Beethoven’s final complete choral symphony, composed between 1822 and 1824.
As with many other Beethoven works from this period, Symphony No. 9 is considered one of the greatest achievements in the history of music and is one of the most frequently performed symphonies across the world.
Symphony No. 9 was also the first musical score to be added to the Memory of the World Programme Heritage list.
Fidelio is Beethoven’s only opera. The piece frustrated and annoyed him because he ended up having to revise it three times. So much so that he decided never to work on another opera.
Fidelio nevertheless became one of his many celebrated works.
The above should not be considered a comprehensive list of pieces Beethoven composed while he was deaf. Even later in life, Beethoven remained very productive, though he did eventually become much too ill to continue.
How Was Beethoven Able To Compose Music If He Was Deaf?
So, if one can’t hear anything, how in the world does one compose music at all? Wouldn’t it be impossible, save for notation and educated guesses?
Naturally, it didn’t hurt that Beethoven already had extensive experience with piano and music. He knew what voices and instruments sounded like and how they could blend.
Beethoven did not become deaf overnight, and this fact may have also aided in his ability to keep composing, though Beethoven kept composing even after his death, and left an impressive body of work.
As his hearing got worse, Beethoven got into the practice of putting a pencil in his mouth and touching the other end of it to the soundboard so he could feel the vibrations of the note.
Did Beethoven’s Hearing (Or Lack Thereof) Affect The Way He Composed?
Because Beethoven was able to hear the full range of frequencies earlier in his career, he did not shy away from using higher notes in his compositions.
As his hearing deteriorated, his use of lower notes became more pronounced as he stopped using higher notes.
The higher notes did return to his compositions later in life, however, indicating that his pencil-to-soundboard method worked, or he was able to imagine the notes in his mind as he was writing.
How Did Beethoven Die?
Having completed his final composition, the replacement finale for the op. 130 quartet, Beethoven had grown depressed and ill.
He would suffer many symptoms, including coughing, difficulty breathing, fever, jaundice, dropsy, and swollen limbs. Autopsies later revealed that Beethoven had severe liver damage, possibly due to his heavy consumption of alcohol.
Beethoven died on March 26, 1827, at the age of 56. A funeral was held for Beethoven in Vienna on March 29, 1827.
Would It Have Been Possible To Cure Beethoven’s Deafness With Today’s Medical Technologies?
Beethoven suffered from sensorineural hearing loss. This is the most common type of hearing loss and there is no known cure for it, even today.
It is possible, though, that Beethoven could have benefited from hearing aids and cochlear implants. While this would not have cured his deafness, it would have allowed him to hear significantly better.
Who Did Beethoven Learn From?
Beethoven continued to compose music late into his life, even as he was growing deaf. His training naturally played a role in his ability to continue to compose until close to his death.
Initially, he was taught by his father, Johann van Beethoven. And when I say “taught,” Johann was reportedly quite tough on his son Ludwig.
Beethoven then went on to be trained by German opera composer and conductor Christian Gottlob Neefe.
After moving to Vienna, Beethoven studied composition with Haydn, at which point he started gaining a reputation as a virtuoso pianist.
Was Beethoven Deaf And Blind? Final Thoughts
In summary, yes, Beethoven was deaf. He started going deaf in his mid-20s and he had all but lost most of his hearing by his mid-40s. But he was never blind, even if he did rely on eyeglasses as he aged, as most of us do.
Beethoven still went on to compose some of his most celebrated works, even while he was deaf. His experience had taught him well, and he even managed to find some workarounds (though we’re not sure how effective they were).
Beethoven’s music is well worth listening to and studying, even today, thanks to its expansive influence on modern music.