People often tell me they are teaching classical music through “Composer Studies,” choosing one composer at a time, listening to his music, and reading about his life. But are biographies necessary or even a good tool for teaching the arts? Let me offer an example to explain why I am likely to say “no.”
Almost any child who knows Beethoven’s name knows one specific fact: Beethoven was deaf. Kids are fascinated by this information and quickly develop an image of a man holding an ineffectual, trumpet-shaped hearing device to his ear, desperately trying to hear the music he is writing.
But this is wrong.
First, a disclaimer: Few things are more fascinating for an adult to read than a thoroughly researched, well-written artist biography. Much understanding can be gained from such a book, not only of the subject, but of an entire era.
Elementary and middle school students, however, do not yet read this kind of biography. Biographies for their ages are necessarily highly selective and simplified. Consequently, the “facts” that are presented can be problematic, distracting, or even distorting.
Beethoven’s deafness was real. But like many facts that children latch on to, it can be learned without context. Thus, wrong conclusions can be deduced. Similar cases might include memorizing facts about Van Gogh’s self-mutilation of his ear or Bach’s oft-described identity as the father of twenty children.
In the case of Beethoven, children too easily conclude that he was great because he wrote music while deaf. They see overcoming this obstacle as his singular, miraculous achievement.
Here’s the truth about Beethoven’s deafness: His loss of hearing began in young adulthood and progressed to the point of total deafness in his older years. It was a source of annoyance, frustration, and fear, as would be any medical handicap … but not because he couldn’t hear to compose music.
Beethoven from childhood had internalized the tones of string, wind, and percussion instruments. He knew the sounds and capacities of instruments like the organ and piano. And he understood how to wield vocal ranges and choral textures.
But more importantly, Beethoven (like virtually any composer) wrote music inside his head. If you stop and are quiet, you can replicate this experience, since most people can “hear” a familiar piece of music in their minds, whether it be a song, a dance, or a theme from a favorite movie.
Yes, composers sometimes do use the stimulus of playing a keyboard (or other instrument) to reinforce their creative choices and test out sounds they are considering. But the physical sound waves from these instruments are rarely the source of a composer’s ideas. Furthermore, composers usually draft their compositions on paper (or today in a computer-generated score). They wrestle internally with problems of form and content the same way writers do: try it, cross it out, try it again.
Therefore, long after Beethoven was deaf, he could compose. He could sit at a piano and play through his works, hearing at least a version of them inside his head. He could still write a string quartet guided by his internal genius for compiling rhythm, harmony, melody, and form in extraordinary ways. Some scholars argue he could do it even better in his later “deaf” years, because he was not distracted by physical realities of the sounds, or more importantly, limitations of the instruments of his day.
What he could not do, once fully deaf, was something flight attendants call a “cross-check.” He could not double- and triple-check to make sure that the notes he had written would work well in an actual performance. He could not be sure that his coupling of an oboe and clarinet sounded as effective as he had intended in a given passage. He could not tell if a copyist had recorded a wrong note that his horn players were blithely reproducing.
He also could not walk to the back of a hall during a rehearsal and assess the acoustical vagaries of the space where his music was to be performed. He had to rely on others for this information.
Not surprisingly, his deafness made him grumpy, as such a limitation would make anyone. It made him defensive and anti-social in the very years when he most needed his friends and patrons. He could not partake in social chit-chat or avail himself of opportunities such as crossing a drawing room to greet “Countess So-and-So” after overhearing a rumor that she was seeking a composer to write a festive overture. Such things had to be communicated in writing, or not communicated at all.
The good news is that we moderns have inherited thousands of pages bearing one side of people’s conversations with Beethoven, scribbled on miscellaneous sheets of paper and in little notebooks today called Konversationshefte (Conversation Books). It is a unique legacy.
Does a child need to know all of this? Well, actually, I think so, or at least part of it. Otherwise I would discourage presenting the “Beethoven was deaf” badge as a starting point in introducing a student to his music. Like most biographical facts concerning any creative artist, it offers at best a very limited window of understanding. So much more could be learned from comparing Beethoven’s music to Mozart’s or Haydn’s, or from discussing the enormous upheavals of Beethoven’s time (which corresponded closely to the lifespan of Napoleon).
None of this supersedes the power of the art itself to communicate. Children are very good at hearing, or seeing, that power—honing in exactly on what we might call the intrinsic value of an artistic creation.
I’ve been amazed how many times I’ve witnessed young children identify shifts from major to minor keys, long before they have the vocabulary to do so. They respond instinctively to changes in tempo and orchestration. And they develop preferences very early about what is called texture in music: the stacking of musical voices from a “thin” or single melody line to a full palate of choral or orchestral lines woven together.
Not only do children respond to the joyful, bombastic qualities of music, but they also embrace its poignancy. They gravitate towards what they like, yet they are marvelously open to the full gamut of artistic expression.
So, yes, Beethoven went deaf. And yes, he was a musical genius, the like of which the world rarely sees. But the two facts are not connected in a cause-and-effect relationship! If this example alone causes us to think more carefully about how we present an artist’s biography, I’m willing to bet that Beethoven himself would smile.