Beethoven Would Have Loved a Pair of Today’s Hearing Aids
Even Though Hearing Loss Stigma Was Just as Bad—No, Worse—Back Then
22 February 2020
If you’re losing some of your hearing, you may worry about the stigma that’s often associated with hearing aids: “I don’t want to look old.… I don’t want to look infirm…. I don’t want to look feeble…. People won’t find me attractive…. They will shun me…. People will think I can’t do my job.”
But imagine what life with hearing loss would be like in a world without any hearing aids at all.
Ludwig Van Beethoven lived in an era when hearing aids hadn’t even been imagined. It was a world where any kind of disability could make life nasty, brutish, and short. Back then, there were no antibiotics or wonder drugs. Prosthetics for people who lost limbs were crude to useless. And while eyeglasses were starting to become available for people with poor vision, those with hearing loss were completely out of luck.
In the early 1800s, people with disabilities were shunned and often feared. They were marginalized or cast out of society altogether. “Stigma” is too nice a word for the attitudes and treatment people with disabilities had to endure.
For all his fame, did Beethoven confront the kind of stigma associated with hearing loss that so many people fear today? He surely did.
But, based on everything I’ve read about his life, I believe it’s safe to say the deaf composer would have grabbed the first pair of hearing aids he could get his hands on. Even if, like today’s hearing aid buyers, he had to pay a small fortune for a product that might help him hear just a little bit better.
Social isolation and thoughts of suicide
Beethoven suffered acutely from social stigma throughout his adult life. In 1800, at the young age of 28, he confided to his doctor about his hearing loss and the fears he had about revealing it:
My ears are buzzing and ringing perpetually, day and night. I can with truth say that my life is very wretched; for nearly two years past I have avoided all society, because I find it impossible to say to people, ‘I am deaf!’ In any other profession this might be more tolerable, but in mine such a condition is truly frightful. Besides, what would my enemies say to this? (And they are not few in number).Beethoven letter to Dr. Franz Wegeler, 1800
By the age of 32, despondent with fear that his constantly progressing hearing loss threatened his livelihood, he wrote a last will and testament in which he admitted even contemplating suicide: “I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness....I must live like an exile.”
Later, when he was still in his 30s, a woman he proposed to turned him down. Among the reasons was her family’s fear that a deaf musician would never be able to support her.
Anger, paranoia, and fits of rage — fueled by the stress, frustration, and misunderstandings caused by his hearing loss — plagued Beethoven’s social and business relationships the rest of his life.
His hearing loss never slowed him down
Beethoven did his greatest work even as his hearing loss progressed. Between 1801 and 1813, he wrote his First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies.
By 1814, he had given up performing — along with the majority of his income that came with it — because he could no longer hear what he was playing. But that didn’t stop world leaders from honoring him that year as the world’s greatest composer during the Congress of Vienna.
By the 1820s, he was profoundly deaf. Visitors had to write in Beethoven’s “conversation books” because he couldn’t hear anything they said. But with his musical memory completely intact, he went on to compose his most famous work, the Ninth Symphony’s “Ode to Joy,” which premiered in 1824.
His hearing loss and the stigma that came along with it never seemed to slow him down. And think how much more Beethoven could have accomplished with the benefit of today’s hearing aids.
Beethoven’s ceaseless pursuit of better hearing
There’s no doubt he would have been an early and eager adopter of hearing aids. Why? Because for his entire adult life Beethoven did everything he could to get as much sound into his head as he possibly could.
The only hearing aids available at the time were ear trumpets. You’ve seen the quaint old pictures of those brass horns people stuck in their ears and pointed at the the person speaking to them. Don’t laugh. They look ridiculous but can be extremely effective. They funnel the audio waves from your conversation partner, concentrate them, and deliver them to the ear more efficiently than when they are dispersed in the open air.
Beethoven tried them all. Long ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones. Even hands-free ear trumpets that clamped to his head.
And Beethoven never let shame about his deafness get in the way of his attempts to create music. Visitors would watch him crane his neck to get his ear as close to the strings and soundboard of the piano as he could to pick up the vibrations of the melodies he was composing.
At the premiere of the Ninth Symphony, he insisted on “keeping the beat” for the orchestra alongside a conductor who led them through the score. Lost in the music in his head, he fell off the beat. By the end of the symphony he was oblivious to the response of the audience. A lead soloist had to take him by the arm and turn him around where he could see, though not hear, a thundering, standing ovation.
The high cost of hearing loss
In an era when his disability could have ruined his career, Beethoven prevailed. But at what cost? His mentor, Joseph “Papa” Haydn, lived to the ripe old age of 77. Do you think Beethoven would have died at the relatively young age of 54 if he hadn’t lived a life of stress and anguish associated with his deafness?
Which gets us back to the present. The stress, isolation, and frustration associated with hearing loss are as great now as they were in the 1800s. The latest research has even tied the isolation associated with hearing loss to early onset of dementia.
But the social stigma today is nowhere near as great as it was back then. Why? Because today we actually do have hearing aids. Not just good hearing aids, but great hearing aids.
And, guess what? When you start wearing hearing aids and are able to understand what people are saying to you, they actually appreciate it. Your hearing loss may be invisible to them, but not your inability to understand them. In fact, when you “fake it” by pretending to hear them when you have no idea what they are saying, you are more likely to infuriate them than garner their sympathy or understanding.
If hearing aids would have been good enough for Beethoven….
But when you start wearing your hearing aids and can once again understand what people are saying, they forget what’s on your ears. When you make your invisible disability visible by wearing hearing aids, they become invisible to the people you are with, who are simply happy to welcome you back into the conversation.
Now let’s go back and review those fears people have about stigma associated with hearing aids. If Beethoven had been able to get a pair, do you think he would have worried that people might see him as “old,” “infirm,” “feeble,” or “unattractive”?
Do you think he would have worried they might “shun” him more than they already had because he wore something on his ears? Do you think he would have worried that “people will think I can’t do my job”?
No, he wouldn’t. Maybe you shouldn’t, either.