Anthony Burgess chose Beethoven as the favored composer for his character Alex in A Clockwork Orange, because dear olde Ludwig van was a rebel, a romantic, a revolutionary who struggled all of his life against poverty, injustice and ill health to produce genius art. His struggles took many forms, but his greatest one was physical. When Ludwig van Beethoven realized he was going deaf he contemplated suicide. His deafness had started when he was twenty-six with severe tinnitus - a constant ringing in his ears. This was followed by gradual and then profound hearing loss. By 1802, the severity of his deafness had caused him great frustration and unhappiness. He therefore removed himself from society to a peaceful house in the countryside of Heiligenstadt, then an independent municipality, now the 19th district of Vienna. It was here, between April and October 1802, that Beethoven wrote a final letter to his brothers Carl and Johann, in which he explained his ‘wretched existence’ and his terrible sense of isolation and despair.
I can understand this. I have tinnitus and hearing impairment, which means I will eventually go deaf. It’s of little consequence when compared to Beethoven’s suffering, or indeed my own Grandfather’s, who spent his final years not only deaf but blind. Yet, I like to think it gives me a small understanding of the isolation and frustration deafness can bring. Beethoven was only twenty-nine when he faced this severe crisis. His deafness was an attack on his very being, his very existence, greatly impeding his ability to create. Unable to hear the notes he played, he would rest his head on the piano so he could feel their vibration. After writing his testament, Beethoven decided against suicide, and hid the letter amongst his papers, where it was discovered after his death in 1827. instead of death, Beethoven chose to accept his fate bravely, and focus on his Art, and went on to compose some of his greatest work.
Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament is a deeply moving and highly personal letter, that is also a powerful reminder of the human will to succeed - no matter the obstacles or consequences.