Musicologist Jessica Holmes explores connection between Beethoven’s deafness and Ninth Symphony

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is seen as the great composer’s towering achievement in a career full of superlatives.

That he was deaf when he wrote it makes it even more unbelievable.

That act of creation despite the odds is something that Jessica Holmes thinks a lot about.

She is a musicologist with a PhD from McGill and these days she is a post-doctorate fellow at UCLA in Los Angeles. Her interest is in the relationship between music and the body and different forms of disability. She’s hard at work on a book about music and deafness called Music at the Margins of Sense for the University of Michigan Press.

“Deafness has emerged as my primary area of expertise in so far as I am interested in the senses and in how they inform the musical experience.” She has a personal connection. Her uncle is profoundly deaf. “This was my natural entry point into the subject — witnessing the invisible painstaking labours he undertook in his social interactions to supplement the constraints of his hearing aid such as maintaining clear sight lines, intuiting meaning from body language — things that many hearing people take for granted.”

This is a new area for musicology which, as a discipline, Holmes said in an interview, is historically conservative. By definition, it is the study of music as an academic subject, distinct from training in performance or composition.

Musicologist Jessica Holmes is a post-doctoral fellow at UCLA.

As part of the NAC Orchestra’s festival of Beethoven symphonies, Holmes will be giving a talk on Beethoven and deafness on Sept. 22 in the NAC’s Le Salon at 7 p.m. before the performance of the Ninth Symphony in Southam Hall. (Editor’s note: On Friday night there is a free ASL-interpreted dress rehearsal of the Ninth for members of the Ottawa deaf and blind communities at 7 p.m. Attendees will be able to sit among the orchestra.)

“Musicology has tended to undervalue the role of the body in the performance of western art music.  That continues in performance context. We are meant to have transcendent experience of the music.

“My interest in disabilities extends from that suppression from musicological discourse.”

It seems trite to say, but music is an expression of the human body. So much of the experience of watching a soloist perform is the intense visual spectacle of it all, particularly the virtuosity. Often performers will hide an injury to preserve their careers and the impression that they present to a listener.

That veneer is breaking down. Disability is emerging now as viable topic of study or expertise for musicologists such as Holmes.

“What are we learning? First of all: disability is ubiquitous. Within the musical realm, there are so many examples. Playing can cause different types of repetitive strain injuries. Then there are lot of examples of classical and popular musicians alike who are disabled in some way shape or form.

“Blindness, in particular, is thought to bestow musical genius. Hearing loss, by contrast, is often seen to be an automatic disqualifier, the ultimate disability as far as music is concerned.

For Holmes, Beethoven’s deafness is culturally understood as a symbol of his genius.

“The Ninth Symphony, his magnum opus, was composed well after he had retreated from the public eye on account of his hearing loss.

“He had elected to isolate himself. He was alienated from Vienna, his beloved adopted home town. For the Ninth Symphony he came out of hiding.

“We know the story well. He wasn’t able to hear the audience applauding so one of the chorus members had to turn him around so he could see the audience.”

The Ninth Symphony is unique because of the full chorus. The orchestra also was gigantic. The force of the final movement is something to be reckoned with, she said. And no one in Vienna on May 7, 1824, would have been expecting to hear the chorus.

“It would have been a powerful moment for all who were privileged to hear it. I can’t help but wonder if it didn’t have something to do with a desire to just feel and be immersed by a sonic envelope.

“It would have been quite something to be in Vienna at the premiere of this work. It was highly anticipated. There were rumours, because of his alienation and isolation, that he was going to premiere the work in Germany. The Viennese aristocrats and patrons got wind of this and wrote him a heart-felt letter saying he was a national treasure and appealing to him to premiere the Ninth in Vienna.

“This idea that profound hearing loss couldn’t put an end to his musical genius is a wonderful story,” Holmes said. And of course there is truth to that.”

But she notes that we know, today, much more about hearing loss. For example, it is not absolute.

“It exists along a spectrum ranging from mild to profound. No two instances of hearing loss are exactly the same. Beethoven gradually went deaf over the course of his adult life.”

She speculates that he likely had some residual hearing. He might have been able to hear certain things, but, even more to the point: he had time to adjust as his hearing deteriorated.

“I have colleagues who have done work in this topic and who have discovered that Beethoven not only harnessed the multi-sensory potentialities of his body but he also used the piano in various ways.

“He created different ear trumpets and mechanisms which essentially functioned as hearing aids by which he could better listen and compose. He was very determined to accommodate his hearing loss as best he could. But socially, because hearing loss was so stigmatized, that’s where he felt isolated.”

He had also internalized a lifetime of being immersed in music. The result is a work of a true genius.

“The harmonic landscape of the Ninth Symphony or the late quartets is so sophisticated, the melodic trajectory is so beautiful. He internalized this language over course of his life. He was able to hear internally and to imagine timbres even and textures. It’s truly remarkable.”

In the 19th century, Holmes said, deafness was believed to be absolute and that the deaf lived in total silence.

“That is seldom the case. Even people who are born profoundly deaf, who aren’t able to hear below 90 decibels, still have a certain degree of residual hearing and over time they develop very sophisticated mechanisms for perceiving sound. They have an exquisite and extraordinary perception of sound as an object of music.”

Beethoven started go deaf in his 20s. The condition progressed gradually with periods that were more acute, Holmes said.

She said that one can imagine that, as it went along for Beethoven, it was disorienting.

The growing deafness might explain some of his musical traits.

“With Beethoven, the thing to remember is that he was truly a transitory figure between Classical era and the Romantic period. His music was loud. Under his leadership the symphony became longer. He was pushing boundaries including volume. His music is also percussive.

“Beethoven has this force behind his music that I think had a lot to do with hearing loss.”

The speculation is that Beethoven went deaf because of lead poisoning, she said. He frequented thermal baths, all fed by lead pipes.

“As well, we know today that music-induced hearing loss is very prevalent. Perhaps that hit Beethoven or accelerated his condition. We tend to believe only rock musicians or people with their headphones playing too loud go deaf, but many classical musicians develop hearing loss because of what they do.”

Holmes says her exploration of the relationship between music and hearing loss has been eye-opening.

“The thing that I have discovered through the course of my research above all is I think that musicians and musicologists stand to learn from people with disabilities about their musical experience because they really highlight things that we take for granted.

“We know music is a multi-sensory experience We know the body, vibrations, simple touch and visual cues play just as important a role as hearing. I think that as I have refined this area of expertise it really gets at the heart of what music really is.

NACO presents Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
Where: Southam Hall
When: Sept. 22 at 8 p.m.
This performance is sold out. For more information on the Beethoven festival:
Musically Speaking: Jessica Holmes talks about the intersection between hearing loss and Beethoven’s music at 7 p.m. in Le Salon.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.