Beethoven – A Lesson Of Greatness Through Suffering

The classic that is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, including the opening movement (the Allegro)…duh, duh, duh, duhhhhh…is perhaps the most universally recognized song in world.  A universal and timeless classic from, arguably, the world’s greatest composer.  What was extraordinary about this composer was that despite his numerous physical, mental and emotional handicaps, his genius only grew all the more.

Ludwig Von Beethoven (1770-1827) has certainly been one of the most influential composers of the world.  His overriding desire to study with Mozart in Vienna ended with the composer and teacher’s death.  Arriving too late, he instead studied under Joseph Haydn.  In a matter of months, Beethoven became a piano virtuoso.  To Beethoven, it must have felt like it came overnight.  

The greater his physical impediments grew, the greater his genius became.  Perhaps the most magnificent works were done when he was nearly deaf.  His eyesight was also rapidly deteriorating.  Eventually, his friends had to use a slate to write comments, so that they could communicate with him.  This gave him the unfair reputation as being an old, grumpy, hard-of-hearing old man, who didn’t like the company of others.  As the old saying says, “still waters run deep”, and deep as any black abyss, was Beethoven’s loneliness and isolation.  Contrary to popular beliefs, he was a very caring, passionate and considerate man.  His Ode to Joy offers an example of his worldview.  

What people who hear ringing in their ears describe is that it can sometimes drive a person nearly crazy.  Beethoven’s diagnosis was that he suffered with this continuous ringing in his ears (tinnitus) and that he had great difficulty in dealing with it, once he even contemplated suicide.  His hearing loss lead to eventual deafness, and this is where he really became creative.  When composing, he would put his head on top of the piano while striking keys to sense the harmony of the arrangements and build entire symphony’s from it.  

Now deaf, Beethoven thought of another way to compose.  Since he could not hear, he used a large wooden rod, like a baseball bat except with the same thickness throughout.  He pressed this upon his forehead and then resting the other end on the piano, he would identify each note, by it‘s resonance.  Then these resonances combined would form a harmony, which would then have various musical instrumental portions built throughout, and so on.  

Imagine a blind artist, a deaf singer, a mute speaker.  Yes, it can be and has been done, but in Beethoven’s last work’s, it bespeaks perhaps his greatest, musical arrangements created under the most duress of conditions in his life.  Human genius is apparently not restrained by physical or mental incapacities.  It begs the question:  Does a handicap empower some to be great?…or just to greatness?  Is greatness related to suffering?  Do most people who have no handicaps produce less than their best work?  Is there a relationship to each?  Is greatness lost with an easy life?

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, next to Handel’s Messiah, is the most widely recognized song in the world.  In the 5th Symphony, you can almost hear the tragedy and triumph.  In Moonlight Sonata, you are with him, with a full moon, undergoing a painful isolation.  When he tried to temporarily care for his nephew, he so smothered him in love and attention, that the young lad ran away.  This event and his own personal loneliness, isolation (hearing loss), having never been married and longing for it, can all be not only heard, but felt.  Born of adversity were his many brilliances.  

Are the zenith’s of human genius forged from shipwrecked lives?  It would seem so with Beethoven considered by millions as the greatest composer to have ever lived.

Beethoven's is a story of overcoming tragedy and disabilities, and then reaching the human pinnacle of musical achievements.  A complex and brilliant man, no composer before or since has exerted greater musical influence in the world.  Being subject to physical, mental and emotional impairments or agony does not necessarily prohibit greatness, conversely it may even create giftedness.  When something is lost, more is gained.  It is like the proverbial “addition by subtraction“.  How marvelous the human spirit and gifts born of adversity.  Ludwig Von Beethoven is a classic example of not only triumph over tragedy, but triumph from tragedy.   Jesus Christ knows all about suffering and is our victory.

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  1. AprilLorier said:

    All my years of music training + all my years of music teaching have me in a place where I can TRULY enjoy this intelligent article, Jack. Music WAS Beethoven’s life! What else did he have? No family, just music. Wasn’t it grand of God to give him the ingenuity to figure out how to keep writing in spite of his impediments? What an awesome God we serve!!!

    September 26, 2010
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  2. said:

    Amen to that April. Thank you so much for your kind remarks. Yes, God is amazing. He gifts us in so many ways. And He gives us what we do not deserve (called grace) and does not give us what we truly do deserve (called mercy). 🙂

    September 26, 2010
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