Beethoven Loses His Hearing

Around 1796, Beethoven began to lose his hearing.

He suffered a severe form of tinnitus, a "ringing" in his ears that made it hard for him to perceive and appreciate music; he also avoided conversation. The cause of Beethoven's deafness is unknown, but it has variously been attributed to syphilis, lead poisoning, typhus, auto-immune disorder (such as systemic lupus erythematosus), and even his habit of immersing his head in cold water to stay awake. The explanation, from the autopsy of the time, is that he had a "distended inner ear" which developed lesions over time. Because of the high levels of lead found in samples of Beethoven's hair, that hypothesis has been extensively analyzed. While the likelihood of lead poisoning is very high, the deafness associated with it seldom takes the form that Beethoven exhibited.

As early as 1801, Beethoven wrote to friends describing his symptoms and the difficulties they caused in both professional and social settings (although it is likely some of his close friends were already aware of the problems). Beethoven, on the advice of his doctor, lived in the small Austrian town of Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna, from April to October 1802 in an attempt to come to terms with his condition. There he wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament, which records his resolution to continue living for and through his art. Over time, his hearing loss became profound: there is a well-attested story that, at the end of the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, he had to be turned around to see the tumultuous applause of the audience; hearing nothing, he wept. Beethoven's hearing loss did not prevent his composing music, but it made playing at concerts—lucrative sources of income—increasingly difficult. After a failed attempt in 1811 to perform his own Piano Concerto No. 5 (the "Emperor"), he never performed in public again.

A large collection of Beethoven's hearing aids such as special ear horns can be viewed at the Beethoven House Museum in Bonn, Germany. Despite his obvious distress, Carl Czerny remarked that Beethoven could still hear speech and music normally until 1812. By 1814 however, Beethoven was almost totally deaf, and when a group of visitors saw him play a loud arpeggio of thundering bass notes at his piano remarking, "Ist es nicht schön?" (Is it not beautiful?), they felt deep sympathy considering his courage and sense of humor.