Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Heiligenstadt Testament - Poignant and Sad

Letters of Note is one of my more recent additions to my Google Reader. The blog shares interesting communications - letters, faxes, postcards, etc. Recently a letter, called the "Heiligenstadt Testament," was posted from Ludwig van Beethoven, the accomplished composer. Beethoven began to lose his hearing in his late twenties, though he continued to compose. The letter, written to his brothers Carl and Johann Beethoven, poignantly depicts the isolation and depression the composer felt as a result of his loss.

I remember learning about Beethoven in school - never very in-depth, but as a historical figure and leader of a fascinating life. I vaguely remember a teacher - was it third or fourth grade? - mentioning that Beethoven was deaf. She repeated the anecdote in Wikipedia, where Beethoven had to be turned around to see the applause of the audience for his Ninth Symphony. Though she didn't single me out, I recall the strange feeling I had, as though I was the only person in the room. I suddenly felt a deep connection with a man I would have otherwise studied only for the requirements of a quiz and then forgotten about.

My thoughts were jumbled as the class moved on to another time period or historical figure. I thought about all of the implications Beethoven's deafness had on his life. I thought about feeling the vibrations of a symphony through the floorboards, and the difficulty of composing music dependent only on the memory of sounds. (In the letter, Beethoven says poignantly, "Oh, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed.") I thought about the sympathy his audience would feel for him if they knew. What I didn't think about was that he might not have family around to support him. I have always had a very supportive family, and as a child I couldn't imagine that someone like Beethoven might not be able to draw support from his siblings or his parents.

The letter is poignant and sad. Since it was found after he died, Beethoven never knew how his brothers and other family would react to his open and honest sharing of feelings about his loss.

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