On December 17, 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in the Roman Catholic parish of St. Regius in Bonn. 245 years ago today. The rest, as they say, is history, and so much more.
I’ve loved his music for most of my life. In childhood, I had a bust of Beethoven on my piano (who didn’t?). I remember when my grandmother came across this picture of Beethoven in front of his house, framed it and gave it to me.
My cousin, an artist, created a Beethoven teeshirt for me. What I knew of Beethoven as a child fascinated and frightened me – it was said he had a temper (and he certainly had wild hair) – but oh, his music. OH, his music!!
Part of the delight and wonder of it was that a budding piano student could play what the Great Man wrote. No waiting years and years for the musical payoff. Who hasn’t tackled Fur Elise with a sense of delight and accomplishment when the notes finally flowed smoothly? And who, knowing of his deafness, hasn’t been awed by the sheer fact that he wrote so much glorious, soul stirring music in silence?
Then again, it wasn’t silent inside of his head, and thank God for that.
There are countless articles, books, histories, etc. written about Beethoven. A wonderful read, published about 15 years ago, is Russell Martin’s Beethoven’s Hair. This book weaves together three true and fascinating stories: The story of a lock of Beethoven’s hair, snipped by a student after his death and encased in a locket, the story of two men who purchased it in 1994 and their subsequent testing and investigation of the lock, and the story of Beethoven himself. It’s a riveting read which sheds scientific information on the centuries-long mystery of what caused his deafness.
It’s not exactly a spoiler alert – the news has been around for a while, although I still see articles online that say “no one knows exactly what caused his deafness.” The beauty of molecular testing on hair is that you don’t just get a picture in time, you get a picture of what was going on in the body over the period of time that the hair grew. You see what was ingested; poisons, drugs, etc.
Testing revealed massive levels of lead. It’s probable that Beethoven had somehow ingested large amounts of lead over the decades prior to his death.
Perhaps even more surprising is what was not found: No evidence of painkillers for his ever-increasing pain.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. How could a soul so much in touch with the most incredible subtleties of expression bear to dull himself so? I am more in awe of him than ever.
Who else could introduce such stories in so few notes? And then, he took those notes and gave us all the details, all the joy, the pain, the yearning. A man in such pain (for many reasons) wrote the most incredibly healing, magnificent music. One of his great lessons is that there is always beauty, no matter what life gives you. One work that came out of his deafness was his 9th symphony with its magnificent 4th movement. It’s music that takes a soul straight to heaven.
I cannot play any of his works masterfully (or even close), yet I play them for myself. It gives me joy to do so, and sometimes it just gives me solace.
Today, and every day, I am grateful for the music and the life of Ludwig van Beethoven.
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The Guevara lock of hair is permanently housed in the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose University.