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The early Viennese pianos he played as a young man had a clear, bell-like sound that was evidently easy for him to hear even as his hearing faded.
And Beethoven wasn’t a “supercrip,” the term for a person who responds to a disability in ways that inspire others but also set unreasonable expectations.
He never claimed to be overcoming his hearing loss.
The English Broadwood piano he owned during the last decade of his life was both louder and muddier sounding than the ones with which he grew up—again, the exact opposite of what someone with hearing loss would seem to require.
But Beethoven fell in love with the Broadwood for another reason entirely. The soundboard, which amplifies the vibrations produced by the strings, was connected directly to the body of the instrument, conveying those vibrations back to the keys and even to the floor beneath the instrument.
Beethoven created these new textures and sonorities because he was being led by his eyes as much as by his memories of sound.
Rather than detracting from his creative process, his deafness added dimensions to these late works that would not have been there otherwise.
The piano music he wrote at this time incorporated powerful repeated chords, new ways of resolving harmonies, and carefully synchronized passages in which the two hands combine to set the frame of the instrument vibrating from top to bottom. It has been said that both Mozart and Beethoven would compose an entire piece of music in their heads before writing it down.
Scholars have known for decades that neither composer ever claimed to have done anything of the sort, but the story persists—perhaps because it provides an idea that is easy to grasp.
Ludwig van Beethoven occupies a larger-than-life place in our imaginations, all the more so because late in his life he accomplished the seemingly impossible: He continued to compose beautiful and enduring music even as he went deaf.
This achievement is often seen as an example of super-heroic determination, a triumph of the human spirit that tests the boundaries of our species’ ingenuity.