‘Writing about Beethoven helped me come to terms with my own hearing loss’ – The Guardian (blog)

As someone who makes a living as both a soprano and a playwright, I should find Beethoven an obvious subject of interest. Even more so now, as 18 months ago I was diagnosed with a hearing loss condition called acoustic neuroma or vestibular schwannoma, which will eventually lead to complete hearing loss in my right ear. I already often sleep through my alarm if I have my good ear jammed into my pillow.

One in six people suffer some form of hearing loss. There is no reason to suppose musicians are magically exempt from that statistic. Yet you wouldn’t know it. That fear of admitting to hearing loss hasn’t changed since Beethoven’s day. It is still simply too risky. Hearing is an essential tool for a musician, and human beings are not very good at understanding subtleties: that it is possible to have hearing loss, yet still hear enough to continue being a musician.

But I almost certainly wouldn’t have chosen to write a play about Beethoven were it not for Krysia Osostowicz, leader of the Dante Quartet. We met shortly after my diagnosis, ostensibly to discuss fundraising for the quartet’s tour of Japan. But instead we ended up talking about their plans to perform the entire cycle of Beethoven’s 16 or 17 string quartets (depending on how you count them) over six concerts. Krysia had ideas for combining the quartets with readings and narrative. I told her about the positive reactions to my work with the Marian Consort for their performances of my concert-cum-play Breaking the Rules, about 16th-century composer and murderer Carlo Gesualdo.

The Marian Consort perform Breaking the Rules

“Would you be interested in writing a narrative for Beethoven to accompany the series?” Krysia asks.

I hesitate. One of the reasons I hadn’t considered writing about Beethoven is that in some ways it felt too personal. The one thing everyone knows about Beethoven is that he was deaf. It would be impossible to write a piece without tackling his hearing loss, and that would mean looking at my own journey full in the face. I wasn’t sure I was ready for it.

For a start, my hearing loss wasn’t common knowledge. I was careful who I told at first. I had always been complimented by other musicians on my intonation, and it was a source of pride. I was desperate to hang on to that skill and mostly, so far, I have learned to adapt, making good use of my left ear.

soprano Clare Norburn.



Challenge … soprano Clare Norburn. Photograph: Robert Piwko

Practising on my own is easy. Working with other musicians – for me the true joy of being a musician – is more challenging. It’s because you hear both inwardly and outwardly when you work with others. In your inner ear you are loudest of all, and when half of the source of your information from the outside world (about how to blend, tune and balance) is by degrees cut off, it’s hard.

But mostly it’s about fear – of what others will think. And this is an experience that I clearly share with Beethoven, although his deafness was so much more devastating than mine. And his response to deafness is simply extraordinary – an inspiration.

It was in summer 1801, when he was 30, that Beethoven first admitted in a letter to his increasing deafness. A year later came his “dark night of the soul” moment. Beethoven suffered not only from increasing deafness but from what specialists think may have been hyperacusis – a rare condition where pain is caused by loud noises, accompanied by hearing loss. His physician suggested he move from the noise of the city to give his ears a rest. So the composer went to Heiligenstadt, a village now on the outskirts of Vienna. There he penned his Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he wrote frankly about the effect of his increasing deafness. He admitted how isolated he felt, how he had withdrawn from society because he could not hear, and how, as Vienna’s foremost pianist and composer, he could not admit to his deafness.

He admitted to considering suicide. “Only my art, that is all that held me back,” he wrote. And from that moment of true despair came an extraordinary hope, an artistic commitment: “It was impossible for me to leave this world until I had brought forth everything that was within me.”

This really resonated with me. As I have come to terms with my hearing loss, it too has ultimately been a call to action. Today suddenly has such potency. Who knows what I will be able to hear tomorrow? I must write, must sing, now. No more putting things that matter on hold for an uncertain future.

The Dante Quartet perform Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16

So I said yes to Krysia and the Dante Quartet. And, as I wrote a funding application to Arts Council England and researched Beethoven’s life, I realised that making this a first-person narrative was an opportunity to shine a light on some of those hearing loss nuances, and to shout loud about Beethoven’s extraordinary achievements.

The words I put into Beethoven’s mouth speak for me, for all musicians who silently suffer hearing loss: “I’d always been gauche at those society soirees. So imagine me now. I mean, there’s a limit to how many times I can ask people to repeat themselves without giving myself away.

“I am a musician, a composer. Hearing is all – it defines me. The pricking of my skin shows me the future. Society is unthinking. There is black and there is white. Hearing. Deafness. And nothing in between.

“But the truth is sometimes grey. I have not lost my critical faculties overnight. I can still hear when the tenor is flat, when the horn comes in a beat late.

“Yet I fear that the great and good of Vienna will think: poor Beethoven. He has lost his edge.”

The extraordinary thing about Beethoven’s hearing loss journey is that he found a way forward at every stage. Once he accepted his deafness at Heiligenstadt, it was no longer a source of shame, and he was open about it from then onwards. Even for the last 10 years of his life, when he could hear nothing, he kept composing. Many people will know the story of his conducting what seems to be an orchestra in his head at the premiere of his 9th Symphony. Eyes still shut, he had to be stopped and shown the smiling musicians, the appreciative audience applauding.

He had clearly found a way of hearing in an inner soundscape, which gave me an idea for a way into my series of six concert-plays for the Beethoven Quartet Journey. Dante are the string quartet Beethoven hears in his head. My Beethoven explains this to the audience: “The music in my head. It’s flawless. Perfectly in tune. Each articulation lifted clean off the page.

David Timson as Beethoven in Clare Norburn’s Beethoven Quartet Journey.



David Timson as Beethoven in Clare Norburn’s Beethoven Quartet Journey. Photograph: Nick Harries

“My very own imaginary quartet … they play newly minted movements perfectly.

“And they are blessedly silent. None of that moaning that my music is unplayable!”

The narrative is about much more than Beethoven’s hearing loss. Writing six concert-plays means a big canvas, and I wanted to balance the script to cover both the man and his music. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the collaboration with the quartet has been finding ways to provide an accessible and lively narrative, to explain what Beethoven does musically in a way that makes the works understandable for non-musicians, but also brings insights even for those who know the quartets well.

Ultimately, I learn from Beethoven that I am lucky. He shows me that hearing loss in one ear is nothing, even for a musician. “Find your own way,” he tells me. “And keep finding it. The time is not tomorrow. The time for action is now.”

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